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Making a case for whole food supplements

A return to healthy, whole foods is shifting the type of supplements sought by consumers. Here, Natural Vitality's Ken Whitman makes the case for whole food supplements.

My last blog raised the question of whether whole food supplements are more effective. Covering supplements as a journalist, I hear a lot of different arguments that often run at cross-purposes to each other—from manufacturers, physicians, other writers, you name it.

I believe there's room for latitude in interpretions: Even "good" supplement studies are invariably held up to critique. Moreover, each individual has her or her own experience with tolerating and experiencing benefits (or not) from any supplement—not to mention values and beliefs (and budgets) that lead them to choose one supplement over another. 

As our awareness and appreciation of healthy, organic, whole foods grows, it's changing the type of supplements Americans want: Many are choosing ones that are made mainly with these same nutrient-dense foods, over ones with nutrients synthesized in a lab.

Ken Whitman of Natural Vitality is passionate about making organic, legitimately whole food vitamins—including a brand-new Vitality C Complex and B complex sourced from nutrient-dense plants grown on an organic farm. He sent a thoughtful comment to my blog, which I post below to further the conversation.

"First, we have to realize that our food system is an industrialized one. The produce we consume, with the exception of what is bought via CSAs and at farmer's markets, is transported. Lettuce, for example, is mostly transported from California or Arizona. Other produce comes from various states and countries. "Conventionally-grown" produce is grown mostly for transport, not for nutrients and certainly not for taste. It lacks the full spectrum of minerals and comes with pesticide residues and some comes with GMOs. Even organic produce may travel thousands of miles and isn't picked fresh when you buy it in supermarkets, Walmart or even Whole Foods unless it is specifically market as locally grown.

Over the years, we've lost nutrients from our soil and, as a result, we've lost nutrients in our food. So, nutritionally, "whole" food isn't as whole as it used to be. This why Natural Vitality is working with Remineralize the Earth and the Bionutrient Food Association to put the nutrients back in the soil and train farmers and gardeners to grow high nutrient produce. (To learn more about this project, read the article on Dan Kittredge in the latest Organic Connections magazine.

But, in the meantime, most of us aren't getting the nutrients we should from the food that we eat. This is why, in my opinion, we have a supplement industry.

Industrialism is reductionist, not holistic. Our science tends to focus on isolated elements and isolated studies. We are told that bones, for example, are made of calcium. This ignores the other key minerals in bones and the fact that bones are the storehouse of minerals in for the body. This has led to a fixation on calcium and [research is beginning to show that] high-calcium diets that cause [some of] the very things they seek to prevent and worse.

From a holistic view, elements are not isolated. They work together. A good example would be calcium, magnesium, vitamin D and vitamin K. These all work together. You might call them a bone health complex. They are cofactors.

The good thing about whole food is that it contains natural cofactors, not just isolates. [Our new] Vitamin C complex contains ascorbic acid but also the other cofactors nature intended to go along with it. This makes it "better" than the isolated main ingredient, ascorbic acid.

I see whole foods in pill bottles as representing the need for nutrient supplementation. It's more of a comment on our agriculture and our diets than it is on the supplement industry in my opinion.

Of course there is also a difference between what is sometimes called whole food and plant-based. Plant based should come from a plant like aloe vera or carrots or spinach, etc.

There is another category of "grown" supplements which is a yeast organism fed nutrients. Technically these are grown or "live" but this isn't the same as something directly from a plant. It's a hybrid. Not to say that a hybrid is bad, just that it's a hybrid.

In terms of the scientific proof that whole food supplements are more effective, in a sense you're asking reductionist science to be holistic. Science is what got us into this industrialized mess we're in. Science (in the form of the chemical industry and biotech) promised a lot but, in the end, didn't deliver and left us with a big mess to clean up along with a hugely overburdened healthcare system.

Whole foods (real fruits and vegetables) are designed by nature. We're just not getting enough in our diets. We don't need a scientist to prove that eating vegetables is a good thing. Why do we need to prove that dehydrated or freeze dried vegetables are a good thing? These raw foods are not only in bottles but are in vegan shake and meal replacement powders and "superfoods."

You raise many questions I think validly. Natural Vitality is trying to take the larger view. We are utilizing higher dose isolates and we're also using organic whole foods. Things are evolving but I think they're evolving in a good way."

Do you agree with Whitman's take? Please share your comments.

Discuss this Blog Entry 2

Gurumantra Khalsa (not verified)
on May 11, 2012

I think we're seeing a transformation to a 'restoration' economy. As consumers become better informed, they inevitably raise questions. The growth of the organic, natural product, and wellness/self-help industries are evidence of deeply engaged consumers who are finding answers to those questions with their wallets.

I don't believe we'd be having this debate over supplements now if the industry had done a better job of making and sustaining the connection between food-nutrition and supplement nutrition for consumers.

Informed customers built the natural product industry. We've been so busy convincing everyone that our products are safe, manufactured correctly and are effective -- just like pharmaceuticals, only natural, it's no wonder we're coming full circle.

We have a couple of generations who never learned about food or nutrition. They don't know where food comes from and now we're expecting them to understand the distinctions between manufacturing processes and sourcing? Good luck with that one.

The good news is that education remains the easiest, engaging and most effective way to get our message to our audience. The majority of them are looking for guidance. Gaining their trust has never offered so many opportunities for profit and for a world being well.

on May 15, 2012

I agree that consumers are hungry for information--creating opportunity for forward-thinking retailers and manufacturers. There's also a growing sense that chemistry has not always made life better!

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