No sound nutritionist would argue that refined foods are better than whole foods. So the idea of “whole-food” supplements—which, although there is no consistent definition, are generally made of blends of concentrated, dehydrated whole foods, sometimes with added vitamins and minerals—seems like a slam-dunk. And to many, it is. Advocates talk about “ingredient synergy,” meaning that because the nutrients are combined as they are in natural foods, the body can use and absorb them better than nutrients that are isolated into separate pills.

Jay Robbins, DC, of Covina, California, regularly recommends whole-food supplements to his patients because he prefers them to the vitamins and minerals made in what he calls “a pharmaceutical laboratory.” The nutrition rationale behind whole-food supplements, he adds, is that you “need to supply the whole gamut” of vitamins, enzymes, coenzymes, and trace minerals.

Counterpoint

Other practitioners disagree. “The small doses often used in whole-food supplements are unlikely to confer significant benefits, given how easy it is for the body to rapidly use up micronutrients as a result of exercise, insufficient diet, stress, disease, environmental toxins, and genetic weaknesses,” says Jonathan E. Prousky, ND, chief naturopathic medical officer at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine in Toronto.

And despite the allure, arguments in favor of whole-food supplements don’t always add up. A gram of dehydrated food might contain trace amounts of naturally occurring nutrients. But you’d get far larger amounts of vitamins and minerals in a meal of salmon and organic vegetables (though, to be fair, a 2012 study found that only about 2 percent of Americans get adequate nutrients from food). Does the presence of dehydrated foods in the pill itself enhance vitamin and mineral absorption? Maybe. But you would achieve the same absorption, if not better, by taking most single-nutrient supplements with food.

What’s natural?

All supplements—natural or synthetic—involve quite a bit of technology to get measurable amounts of vitamins and minerals into a capsule or tablet, so the terms “whole food” and “natural” remain pretty vague. Most vitamin supplements have been derived from sources that can be considered either natural or synthetic, depending on your perspective. For example, vitamin C is synthesized from corn sugar, while B vitamins and coenzyme Q10 are obtained through the fermentation of bacteria or yeast.

Most whole-food supplements do contain so-called synthetic vitamins. Read the list of ingredients on whole-food labels and there’s a good chance you’ll see that vitamins A and D and the B vitamins have been added. True, they could be yeast-derived, which counts as a natural process; others would say that isolating those vitamins requires a synthetic, industrial process.

Your choice

None of this means whole-food supplements are a waste. Choosing between low-potency whole-food supplements and higher-potency, regular supplements depends on your eating habits, your health, and why you want to take them. Whole-food supplements might be right for you if you’re in good health and really do eat a real-food, mostly organic diet—and desire a multi to serve as a foundation for your supplement regimen. Or, if you’re in the 2 percent of people who eat a nutritionally adequate diet, you might be able to skip supplementing completely for now.

But if your eating habits aren’t always perfect and you do have some minor or serious health problems—which sounds like a lot of us—you might benefit from higher potency supplements under the guidance of a nutritionally oriented physician.