Thursday, July 24, 2008

Dispelling the Whole Food Supplement Myths

There is quite a bit of misunderstanding these days about the value of whole food supplements versus isolated compounds like vitamin C. I have been surprised at how many lay persons and practitioners alike have not come to fully understand this debate, so my purpose here is to attempt to dispel truth from error, research versus hypothesis.

What are Whole Food Supplements?
In quoting a popular online resource and advocate for natural health, “Whole food supplements are what their name suggests: Supplements made from concentrated whole foods. The vitamins found within these supplements are not isolated. They are highly complex structures that combine a variety of enzymes, coenzymes, antioxidants, trace elements, activators and many other unknown or undiscovered factors all working together synergistically, to enable this vitamin complex to do its job in your body.”

That is a very accurate explanation of what whole food supplements are. What is not being said, however, is that in order to make supplements out of whole foods, manufacturers have to freeze dry the food sources – perhaps destroying much of the enzyme content, turn them into powder, and then tablet or encapsulate them.

Let’s attempt to understand this from the perspective of common sense. Let’s say the manufacturer wants to make a supplement containing whole carrot. That might seem like a good idea, right? But by the time the carrot is freeze dried and turned into tablets, how much of all the natural constituents of the carrot are you actually getting? After all, the carrot is in teeny-tiny tablets now. So each tablet is smaller – much smaller – than a single bite of the carrot. So it stands to reason that you end up with much smaller amounts of the nutrients in the supplement than you would from just eating the carrot…and you would have spent much less money eating the carrot compared to buying the supplement.

Is Isolating Nutrients “Unnatural”?
Again quoting the online doctor, “The perfect example of this difference [between whole food supplements versus micronutrient isolates] can be seen in an automobile. An automobile is a wonderfully designed complex machine that needs all of its parts to be present and in place to function properly. Wheels are certainly an important part of the whole, but you could never isolate them from the rest of the car, call them a car or expect them to function like a car. They need the engine, body and everything else.”

The un-named doctor making these statements is well-read and intelligent, and I agree with most of what I have read from him. This is one of the few times, however, where I believe he has made a serious error. His analogy, unfortunately, is frankly not a very good one, with due respect to him. Plants and the nutrient complexes within them are vastly more sophisticated and mysterious than an automobile. I can show you how an automobile comes together on the assembly line, but I cannot tell you how a seed falls to the ground, works itself into the soil, sprouts roots and a stalk, and then grows and thrives all by itself, providing constituents perfectly designed for benefit in human biology. It is nothing short of a Divinely-designed miracle that none of us have any idea how to wrap our minds around. But a car? The complexities of a car compared to a plant are not even worthy of comparison.

A wheel, for example, has almost no benefit apart from the car, that’s true. But that is certainly not true of isolated living nutritive substances like vitamin C, vitamin D, lycopene, limonene, green tea catechins, etc. The fact is, this doctor’s statement sounds sensible to the uneducated lay person, but it is void of support in the scientific literature.

Before I expound further, allow me to quote the good doctor one last time:

“Taking these isolated nutrients, especially at the ultra-high doses found in formulas today, is more like taking a drug. Studies show the body treats these isolated and synthetic nutrients like xenobiotics (foreign substances).”

The doctor mentions studies, but he fails to reference any in the article. No double-blind placebo controlled trials are used to support his assertion. (And out of respect for this doctor and his otherwise good work I will not say what I really think about his above statement, except to say it is very, very wrong.) For that matter, no study of any kind was referenced, but he simply references three other authors at the end of his article, one of which has ties with a whole food supplement company. The fact is, there are no studies to support such a statement. Now, if he is referring to chemical variations of certain nutrients, like dl-tocopherol versus natural forms of vitamin E like alpha tocopherol, then that’s different. I would agree if that’s the case. But he didn’t say that. He implied that ALL “isolated” nutrients are “synthetic,” and that simply is not accurate.

For example, Alpha tocopherol, beta tocopherol, and delta tocopherol are all plant-based vitamin E isolates which have rich support in the scientific literature for their various biochemical benefits. DL-tocopherol is a cheap chemical variation of vitamin E and cannot be compared with its natural counterparts. Some isolates are indeed synthetic in that sense, but to say that all nutritive isolates are synthetic and unhealthy is like saying one kernel of corn is synthetic if it is not still attached to the ear and stalk. It simply doesn’t make sense.

What Does the Research Say?
The fact is, the third-party research supporting the efficacy of whole food supplements is almost non-existent, while the amount of research supporting the safety and efficacy of high-potency isolates for various disease states and even prevention is massive. There are over 12,000 studies alone on EPA and DHA, the two ISOLATED fatty acids from fish oil. And if I were to count up the number of studies showing the obvious benefit of all manner of isolated compounds from various plants, I wouldn’t have room to list them.

The Journal of the American Medical Association even demonstrated the benefit of isolating certain plant compounds for use in cancer patients in their 1995 article, How Phytochemicals Help Fight Disease. They showed that researchers worked out how many oranges one would have to eat every day to get a therapeutic level of a compound called limonene for use in cancer patients. The answer was 400 oranges per day! Yet providing limonene in isolated form prevented and even reversed cancer in laboratory animals.

Just the Facts, Please!
Sometimes I feel like Detective Friday from the old Dragnet series. I just want to say to people sometimes, “Just the facts, Ma’am.” Like many who read this blog (and thanks for doing so), I’m not really that interested in someone’s opinion, in conjecture, educated guesses, marketing hype, or even anecdotal reports. I want to know what the research says, and so far I have seen ZERO research on the benefits of freeze drying turnips and chick peas and making vitamin tablets out of them. But I have seen more research than I can even wade through that show the benefits of adding certain isolated nutritive substances to the diet. If research begins to emerge showing an obvious advantage to taking whole food supplements over isolates, then I will be the first to reverse direction. But until that time I have to go where the research leads.

To qualify, I never said that no one ever got a positive response from using a whole food supplement. I’m certain that there is some nutritive value in whole food supplements, but it is my humble opinion that whatever value they offer is not to be compared with simply eating the fresh, unaltered whole food that the supplements came from. And the suggestion some people are making that whole food supplements are somehow superior to isolating certain compounds in therapeutic amounts is….well…misguided.

The Bottom Line
Ultimately, I think this argument suggesting that whole food supplements best representing what Mother Nature had in mind sells nature terribly short. The whole food advocates, sincere as they are, preach that isolated compounds of plants are somehow useless if they are not combined with the other constituents of the plants. I must respectfully but emphatically disagree. I personally believe that that thinking fails to acknowledge the grandeur and exquisite design of God’s creation. I think that God in His wisdom created plants for at least two reasons: 1) to support and nourish human and animal life, and 2) to provide therapeutic substances for medicinal purposes.

God, in His infinite wisdom, knew that there would be a population of the human race who would be living in the most toxic, disease-infested, and nutritionally-deficient time in history, and who would need therapeutic amounts of certain substances to combat chronic disease. And He has made provisions for the discovery through modern technology of these various nutritive isolates. Indeed, modern technology demonstrates the wisdom of our Creator in putting these incredible substances in the plants that we eat and use for medicine.

So is it really that much of a stretch to imagine that God’s design of plants was for many purposes? Cherry trees, for example, provide humans with a high quality wood with numerous uses, produces oxygen to breathe, they grow tasty fruit for food, and that same fruit contains wonderful phytochemicals that are medicinal. It is very obvious that plants have numerous uses, and so with due honor to the whole food supplement advocates, I would like to respectfully suggest that the whole-foods-only argument is probably well-intentioned, but is also myopic and archaic. It limits what I believe God had in mind in creating various plants, which is for food in the whole food form, and for medicinal purposes with the individual constituents they contain.

Thank you God, for Your incredible creation! I’m off now to take my multivitamin.


A great choice for foundational nutrition support can be found in the Wellness Essentials line of products, each one containing 4 products (Multigenics multiple formula, EPA DHA fish oil, and 2 others depending on the application) packaged together in one unit. All are great micronutrient blends to add to your whole foods diet. :-)