What Vitamins Should I Take? Food Based vs. Synthetic

You probably know that taking a multi-vitamin/multi-mineral supplement is a good idea. Its basically your insurance against nutritional deficiencies. With so many on the market, “what vitamins should I take?” is a question I hear a lot. In theory, you can get all of the essential vitamins and minerals that you need from various food sources if you eat a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, eggs, and other foods. The truth is, most of us don’t do this on a daily basis.

As a Fort Collins nutritionist, my take on the subject is to always improve your diet first. Then, add vitamins and minerals to fill in for deficiencies. Let’s talk about the difference between  width=food based or food derived vitamins and minerals versus synthetically derived vitamins and minerals in supplements.

For starters, there are vitamins in food. Vitamins are vital to health because your body can’t make them. Therefore, they need to be consumed in the diet. If you can’t get enough in the diet, supplements are the next best thing. Food derived vitamins are extracted and concentrated from real food like carrots, wheat grass, gogi berries, and tons of others. Synthetic vitamins are manufactured in a lab to mimic the vitamins found in real food.

The main difference between natural and synthetic vitamins is the absorption and utilization by your body. Here is an example of Vitamin E which is also known as alpha-tocopherol. Vitamin E is a highly effective antioxidant with many functions in the body. However, there are technically 8 different forms or structures of Vitamin E! There’s an alpha, beta, gamma, and delta form of Vitamin E and each has a saturated and unsaturated form. If you’re not into the nutrition nitty-gritty, just bare with me for a second. Foods in nature naturally contain the saturated forms known as tocopherols with certain foods that are particularly high in alpha-tocopherol like almonds, sunflower seeds, and wheat germ.

When scientists manufacture the synthetic Vitamin E in a lab, they end up with an even mixture of all 8 forms and only 1 of the 8 is very useful in the body. As a result, the benefit is over double if you take the same amount of food-derived Vitamin E as synthetic Vitamin E. If you’re taking synthetic vitamins and minerals, your body has to do a whole lot more work to sort through what it needs and what it doesn’t and get rid of all the extra stuff it can’t use. So. . . it makes sense that because food-derived vitamins are more effective in the body than synthetic vitamins, it would be wise to take them!

Quality and price typically go hand in hand when it comes to vitamins. Synthetic vitamins are cheaper to make than extracting vitamins from food. If you buy vitamin supplements from big box stores at very low prices, there is a very good chance that the vitamins are synthetically made. Higher quality vitamins are usually a bit more expensive and found at health food stores and distributed by healthcare practitioners. There is no guarantee that even these higher quality vitamins are whole food based, but it should be pretty easy to find out.

Its important to know how to tell the difference between synthetic and food-based vitamins. One easy way to tell is what it says. If it clearly states “whole food derived” or “whole food vitamin” then you’re probably safe. Another way to tell is to flip over the supplement and look at the ingredients. If its properly labeled, Vitamin E should read “d-alpha-tocopherol” or “RRR-alpha-tocopherol” if its food-derived. If its synthetic, it should read “dl-alpha-tochopherol” or “all-rac-alpha-tocopherol” where “all-rac” means that all of the different forms are present.

Hopefully this explanation helps to give you some better information about your vitamin and mineral supplements and make better choices. If you have questions or comments, please post them below!


Erin Harner

Erin Harner is an Integrative Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN), author, and speaker based in Ithaca, NY. Erin melds functional medicine and culinary nutrition to help her clients uncover their unique diet and confidently cook healthy nourishing meals that meet the needs of their whole family. Learn about Erin's services and connect on Instagram.

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