Nutrient Games

How many grams of protein do I need? How about vitamin C; how much of that? And calcium; what percentage of the Recommended Daily Allowance? When speaking about foods, food products, or supplements, do any of these questions make a difference? Yes and no. We all realize that we need nutrients to live. Not enough vitamin C results in scurvy. Calcium helps build bones. All too often though, we focus on the quantity of nutrients we get and don't consider the quality.


We think of the human body as a vast, complicated machine. It runs on the nutrients found in foods, and science and medicine act like the neighborhood mechanic, telling us which fuels we need and how much of each one: so much water, so much protein, so many vitamins, so many minerals. Where we get these fuels is largely ignored. But where we get them is important, as is the mixture we consume the proportions.

Supplements and "Nutrition Facts" labels are geared to this body-as-machine thinking, supplements boast how much and labels require how much. When we see mega- amounts on labels, we should ask ourselves, "How did they get there?" How can you get more vitamin C from a pill than that which exists in a natural source? Do supplement manufacturers use bushels of rosehips to get these large nutrient amounts? Generally, no. Manufacturers pump up nutrient amounts by creating them in a lab.

This, of course, brings us to nutrient sources and the synthetic versus natural debate. Some claim that a nutrient is a nutrient and a molecule is a molecule, no matter whether the nutrient is made in a laboratory or found in nature.

The Sum of the Parts

One important difference between a synthetic source and a natural source is that a natural source contains the sum of many nutrients. Beta carotene, for example, can be easily isolated, manufactured, and sold in large amounts. The danger in this, however, is that manufacturers of synthetic beta carotene supplements ignore the fact that natural sources contain much more than beta carotene. Carrots, which are a natural source of beta carotene, also contain water, protein, carbohydrates, iron, calcium, phosphorus, sodium, potassium, B vitamins, fiber, vitamin C, and alpha carotene (another member of the carotenoid family). These nutrients are all important to our health and no doubt work together to form a greater whole. When you isolate and "create" beta carotene in the laboratory, you can end up with large amounts of beta carotene, yes, but not the other nutrients.

The early history of vitamin B provides a good example of how consumers might have lost out by taking synthetic products. Vitamin B was "discovered" in 1925, and for years scientists thought that it was the one and only B vitamin. However, by 1975, 10 more vitamin B family members had been discovered. So who benefited most, someone who had been taking a synthetic vitamin B supplement, even in large quantities, or someone who had been eating foods or taking supplements from a natural source, such as a whole food concentrate? It seems obvious that a natural food would be more beneficial, since it contains the full range of all the B vitamins, discovered and undiscovered. When we do not know all the elements of natural sources, or how they interact, it seems foolish to take synthetic supplements, even in large amounts, when natural products and natural supplements are available.


We should also consider the "unmentionables," those substances that are not usually displayed (or cannot be displayed!) on Nutrition Facts labels. Foods contain sub-stances such as enzymes, amino acids, chlorophyll, and phytochemicals (substances in plants that may have beneficial health effects), and when we isolate and manufacture one substance, important substances are left behind.

Enzymes deserve special consideration. They are the sparks that start the essential chemical reactions our bodies need to live. Without them, we would be helpless. However, enzymes must be alive to provide us with their power, and they are only alive in raw, uncooked foods and natural supplements that have been processed at low temperatures. Synthetic products cannot provide these "live" enzymes; only foods and natural supplements can.


Also of concern is how well the body can absorb and use products, that is, their bioavailability. The debate here is whether synthetic and natural products have the same bioavailability. Some say they do, while others contend that natural products are superior.

There is agreement, however, that vitamin E is much better in a natural form than in asynthetic form. According to Dr. Earl Mindell's Internet Homepage, natural vitamin E is 36 percent more powerful than synthetic vitamin E. This is reinforced by Shari Lieberman and Nancy Bruning in The Real Vitamin and Mineral Book. They contend that in fat-soluble vitamins, such as vitamin E, there is evidence that a product from a natural source is more bioavailable than a product from a synthetic source.


Another consideration is proportion. A natural source gives you not only all the nutrients found in the source and increased bioavailability, but also the nutrients in their natural proportions. This means that the nutrient levels are not manipulated to beef up specific nutrients; you get them in the form in which they were naturally created, and perhaps the way they were meant to be.

It is interesting to look at the foods we consider "healthy." In her book Food and Healing, Annemarie Colbin notes that the proportion of minerals to proteins, proteins to carbohydrates, and carbohydrates to water remains roughly the same in healthy foods. Vitamins and minerals are found in the smallest amounts; then, in larger amounts, come proteins, carbohydrates, and water. Foods such as cooked grains and vegetables all exhibit this progression. (Colbin uses human milk as a starting point for "healthy foods," but discounts the rather high fat content of milk as only suitable for infants.) Foods we might consider unhealthy, such as refined sugar and meat, have an overabundance of one type of nutrient. Sugar contains carbohydrates, with virtually nothing else; beefsteak contains predominantly protein and fat. Colbin notes that when we lose this "proportion," our bodies try to balance the deficiency or excess. We also know that taking large amounts of vitamins or minerals can work against us. For example, calcium can impair your ability to absorb iron. Zinc hinders copper and calcium absorption, iron affects zinc absorption, calcium slows magnesium and iron absorption, and magnesium hurts calcium and iron absorption. Too much vitamin B1 can affect thyroid and insulin production and may cause a deficiency in vitamin B6. Too much of one B vitamin over time can deplete other B vitamins. In other words, if you take a "cocktail" supplement that contains many different nutrients in large amounts, they may work against each other, rather than with each other.

There is also the question of toxicity. When you consume foods and the natural proportions of nutrients they contain, you do not run the risk of taking too much. Nor do you have to worry so much about possible allergic reactions. On the other hand, according to Dr. Theron G. Randolph, an allergist (as cited in Earl Mindell's Vitamin Bible), "A synthetically derived substance may cause a reaction in a chemically susceptible person when the same material of natural origin is tolerated, despite the two substances having identical chemical structures."

Food or Pills?

So you are sold on natural supplements. But are they the best you can do? According to Hamilton and Whitney's Nutrition, they may not be the best choice. In general, nutrients are best absorbed from foods because the nutrients are dispersed among other ingredients that facilitate their absorption. Supplement pills, even natural supplement pills, can fail to dissolve or pass through the body without being absorbed. The Nutrition Action Newsletter reports on one consumer who spotted a vitamin pill comfortably lodged in his large intestine in an X-ray!

You should also look at the big picture when considering supplements. A "natural" vitamin C supplement for a child may well contain a certain amount of vitamin C from a natural source. But what else goes into it? Look closely at the label. Vitamin C supplements, especially those for children, often contain more sugar than vitamin C. They may also contain many different additives, which may not be harmful, but do you really want to use them if they are not necessary?

Unfortunately, labels are also deceptive. "Natural" does not necessarily mean that a vitamin is extracted from a natural food source. It simply means that the supplement does not contain any unnatural ingredients. There is also the question of why some ingredients are in supplements. Manufacturers lead you to believe that they are there because you need them. But is this true? Often, it's a question of money. A particular nutrient may show up in large quantities in many different supplements. However, this may be because it's inexpensive, not because it's good for you.

The Answer

This brings us back to our original question: Can less ever equal more? In the realm of nutrition, the answer is yes. It is not the amount that makes a difference, but the quality, especially when it comes to micronutrients. This is why foods, and their close relatives, whole food concentrates, are better for you than synthetic or natural supplements.

This is because when you eat a food or whole food concentrate, you eat a natural product with natural nutrients. That is, products that have all the nutrients found in whole foods, products that have better absorbability and bioavailability, products that have natural nutrients in natural proportions, and products that have no additives. A little of this kind of product goes further than a lot of a laboratory-made and -manipulated product. Less can be more.

The article "Nutrient Games" is reproduced with the permission of AIM International.
©1997 by AIM International

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