Our bodies, though powerful and capable of brilliant things, are unable to produce all of the vitamins and minerals required to function at full capacity. This means that we must supplement ourselves to stay healthy, and whilst they could come from following a healthy and balanced diet, modern society no longer has time for the dedication to ensuring that all the necessary nutrients are received through our breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
In fact, less than one third of the UK adult population eat their five-a-day, and in the past decade, fruit and vegetable intakes have fallen by over a third1. This fact has a huge impact on our vitamin and mineral intakes, for example, vitamin B2 (riboflavin) levels which are down by over 10%1, and across the world, 12% of the United States population are at risk of zinc deficiency2, and it was found that in India, 70-90% are deficient in vitamin D3. Even scarier, is that diet-related ill health in the UK is estimated to cause 70,000 premature deaths each year, which is around 12% of total deaths1.
Of course, providing our bodies with a rich, balanced diet composed of superfoods will solve this problem. However, for most of us, for one reason or another, this is not feasible. The solution is obvious: increasing our vitamin and mineral intake through food supplements.
What are food supplements?
Food supplements (also known as dietary, nutritional, or vitamin and mineral supplements) are formulated to provide the right quantities of essential nutrients that we are lacking in our daily diet. They can be delivered in various formats, including powders, pills, capsules, liquids or even gummies, and each serving (one scoop, two pills etc.) is designed to give you an optimal dosage that fulfils your recommended requirements.
There are two different styles of supplements available, either single ingredient or multi-ingredient. The most common that you’ll find on supermarket shelves is a typical multi-vitamin that contains a range of recommended nutrients. But, there are other multi-ingredient formulations that do not serve to meet all your daily requirements, but combine ingredients to achieve a specific effect to give a synergistic effect, such as nootropics, which are formulated to enhance cognitive performance. The alternative to this is one specific vitamin or nutrient, such as magnesium, or zinc to target a specific deficiency.
No matter if the supplement is single ingredient or multi-ingredient, there is one major distinction – whether the supplement is natural or synthetic. Individual ingredients can either be derived from natural sources, or be produced using man-made chemicals. Supplements on the market today are usually produced entirely with either synthetic or natural ingredients, however some may contain a combination.
How are supplements produced?
Earlier in history, deficiencies within the human diet were treated with whole foods, such as vitamin B12 deficiency anaemia with raw liver4, but this was expensive and unsustainable for the global health industry, so a solution was necessary. Scientific advances have meant that many vitamins can now be manufactured artificially. In these circumstances, chemicals are combined in an industrial process to create each vitamin or mineral in its isolated form that follows as close a chemical structure as possible to the natural source. An easy way to identify whether your vitamins and minerals are synthetic is by reading the label: generally, words that end in “ide” or “ate” (such as palmitate, a synthetic source of vitamin A) are salts, which mean that they have been artificially produced.
Most natural food supplements come from whole foods, such as fruits and vegetables. To achieve a by-product suitable for supplements, they can be dehydrated, concentrated or dried to create a rich powder or extract. During this process, no chemicals or other artificial ingredients are added, making them completely pure sources. However, it is not just the isolated vitamin or mineral that is extracted, but a complex containing other important molecules like carbohydrates, proteins, lipids and enzymes5 that allow the vitamin to be at its most beneficial to us. You will be able to tell if your supplement contains a naturally sourced vitamin, because the label will state which food it contains (e.g. guava as a source of vitamin B).
Why do companies use synthetic vitamins?
A major proportion of dietary supplements are made up of artificial vitamins and minerals, with few companies opting for natural ingredients. One major reason for this is cost. Synthetic vitamins are far cheaper and simpler to produce in a laboratory setting or industrial process in large quantities than the extraction of vitamin complexes from whole foods, which means that they are able to make a larger profit, whilst still keeping their costs to consumers low.
Synthetic vitamins and minerals are designed to mimic natural vitamins, and attempt to disguise themselves to our body so that they are absorbed and benefit us in the same way as if we were obtaining them from a natural source. However, artificially produced nutrients are not always exact copies of the whole food complex, but an extremely similar chemical composition to the isolated vitamin/mineral, known as an analogue. There can be many different analogues all for the same natural vitamin, all with differing effects.
Why does it matter if nutrients are natural or synthetic?
Our bodies are designed to absorb essential nutrients that we cannot produce ourselves from animal and plant-based food sources, and these whole foods exist in such a way that allows humans to get the best out of them.
One way of gauging this is bioavailability, which measures how much of the important nutrients are absorbed by the body, and therefore can benefit us. By design, fruits, vegetables and other natural dietary sources such as meat and dairy have optimum bioavailability because all of the other surrounding compounds, like enzymes, work harmoniously with the main nutrient, and though attempts are made, synthetic forms are not necessarily designed in the same way6. Therefore, the vitamin effects that natural sources have cannot be attributed to their artificial counterparts as the bioavailability may be different, and thus, the effects and/or benefits may be different too7.
The different analogues for vitamins and minerals also have varying levels of effectiveness8. Some have been tested on animals and have shown no vitamin action9, while others have actually been found to reduce the positive effects of the vitamin it tries to replicate10. This is why natural vitamins are preferential for the body, as their effects are proven to be beneficial.
The human body is extraordinarily clever, which means that when synthetic nutrients enter our bodies, we notice and do not necessarily treat them in the same way, which means we are often not receiving the desired benefits.
Since many of us are unfortunately unable to dedicate the effort required into ensuring our diet contains everything we need, it is essential to supplement in a natural way that our bodies will appreciate.