As a holistic nutritionist, I genuinely believe in the power of natural supplements, especially due to the stress of modern times. But just like with anything in life, not all dietary supplements are created equal, and not all deliver the most benefits to you.
There are key differences between synthetic and food-based supplements that are important to understand before choosing the right one for you.
And while taking supplements can’t replace maintaining a healthy diet, drinking enough water, and regular body movement, supplements made from natural sources vs synthetic compounds can go a long way in helping us maintain our bodies by getting us some of the essential nutrients our diet and lifestyle can sometimes miss.
You’ve probably walked down the vitamin aisle at your local store wondering a million questions, like:
“How do I choose?”
“Why is this one more money?”
“Ohhh, that packaging is eye-catching but is what’s inside actually good?”
The question is, “how do I know if my supplements are really benefiting my overall health?”
In a world of flashy marketing, quick fixes, and terms like “natural” that sadly don’t hold much meaning these days, I have become passionate about educating and explaining just why some supplements are better for you…and the best investment choice for your time and money.
The important thing to remember is that learning to distinguish supplements with real, natural ingredients from their synthetic counterparts doesn’t have to be hard anymore, and I’m here to help you along the journey.
Cheaper isn’t always better.
As the old saying goes, “you get what you pay for,” and that is especially true with supplements. Price is just one factor.
The most important question isn’t what the price is, but rather how effective that supplement will be inside your body and delivering benefits to YOU.
For example, you may purchase a big bottle of Vitamin C at your local drug store for $3.96 (yes, I actually did the research). This Vitamin C is a highly processed synthetic version of what your body is built to recognize. So when you take it, most of it is not absorbed by your body and is ultimately excreted as waste from your body, flushing your money down the drain.
In fact, you might actually be doing more harm than good. Most synthetic supplements aren’t designed with human consumption in mind and are harsh on the digestive system.
These synthetic vitamin supplements end up causing issues down the road because they can contain preservatives (again can lead to toxicity, liver issues, and even headaches) and are often made with GMO ingredients or contain heavy metals, mold, and other contaminants.
Sadly, because the supplement industry has been highly commercialized, just grabbing a bottle of vitamins isn’t that simple these days.
What’s the benefit to you?
Buying pretty bottles of tinctures and supplements and taking supplements ONLY matter if there is a benefit to you, right?
In the end, whole-food vitamins deliver the MOST benefit to you—allowing your body to use and absorb what you are spending your time and money on. Your body can recognize these powerful supplements because they are made from natural food sources.
While the initial cost might be a bit more, you’ll be saving money in the long run!
Let’s dive in…
- Best Natural Sleep Remedies
- Natural Prenatal Vitamins Guide
- Best Supplements to Combat Adrenal Fatigue
Synthetic vs Whole Food Based Supplements
What’s the difference?
Synthetic supplements are made from chemicals designed to mimic how natural vitamins and minerals react within your body.
Pros: Cheap, readily available, can be a good option when high or therapeutic levels are needed.
Cons: Difficult to absorb, can contain contaminants, preservatives, sugars, or food dyes, can cause digestion issues, can cause an imbalance in other vitamins and minerals within the body, creating further nutrient deficiencies, toxicity, or long-term issues, not always bio-available or recognized by your body. Often singled out sources and do not contain cofactors needed to absorb and utilize vitamins.
Whole Food Based Supplements
Whole food-based supplements use concentrated and condensed real food sources such as vegetables and fruits to deliver natural vitamins and minerals to your body.
Pros: Easily absorbed, contain cofactors necessary for availability and absorption within the body, increases effectiveness, recognized by the body, robust source of other phytonutrients and trace minerals needed for absorption and benefits.
Cons: Typically more expensive initially
How to Compare
Vitamin C is probably the easiest type of supplement to see a big difference between those made from synthetic sources and those of their natural counterparts. When in doubt, check the ingredients.
On the left, you’ll see synthetic Vitamin C (ascorbic acid).
Synthetic ascorbic acid is often derived from genetically modified corn and processed with a host of chemicals such as acetone (yes – just like nail polish remover). — Synergy Company
Yet a company doesn’t have to disclose that processing information.
On the right, you’ll see a robust list of real food ingredients found in my favorite Pure Radiance C—look how beautiful and extensive this list is!
Whole Food Supplements Contain the Necessary + Robust Cofactors
Synthetic supplements contain an isolated and high concentration of a chemical substance mimicking the natural version. This oftentimes means the body stores what it does not use or recognize until it has the necessary cofactors to process. This can create a toxic buildup within the body and damage the liver.
Due to food synergy, or how real food ingredients work together, many of the health benefits we associate with supplements come from the synergistic interaction of numerous phytonutrients, including essential fatty acids, bioflavonoids, polyphenols, enzymes, and trace minerals.
Food based supplements increase the effectiveness and benefit to you!
For example, the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K need essential fatty acids to be properly absorbed and used by the body, or else they can become toxic.
Foods naturally high in these vitamins—beef liver, salmon, tuna, cod liver oil, sunflower seeds—all naturally contain essential fatty acids. This helps the body absorb and utilize them effectively!
Let’s give the example of Vitamin D—taking Vitamin D3 with Vitamin K2 helps make sure the calcium is best used by the body. Vitamin D3 helps the body absorb calcium, and Vitamin K2 helps the calcium get into the bones rather than just accumulating deposits in the arteries.
Without the necessary cofactors for absorption, your body could be storing potentially toxic levels or hindering your body from actually benefiting from what you are taking.
We recommend this whole food-based D3 + K2 Complex >
Are all synthetic vitamins bad?
Actually, no. This article from Seeking Health, one of my favorite supplement brands, explains it perfectly. There are some circumstances when we need synthetic vitamins—but looking deeper into a brand’s manufacturing process, bioavailability and absorption is KEY.
Synthetic supplements that contain the necessary cofactors and deliverability means so that they are bio-available to you can be a good option, especially when someone is seeking higher or therapeutic levels.
One of the most common examples is folic acid vs folate.
Some people have genetic mutations like MTHFR, which can prevent or slow your body from using active, food-based sources of some supplements like folate or 5-MTHF.
“As an example of synthetic versus natural forms, let’s consider folic acid vs. folate. A cheap, less superior, and synthetic form of folate is known as folic acid. Folic acid is used to fortify bread, cereals, and other packaged foods where the folate has been stripped out during processing. Folic acid is inexpensive to produce and is synthetic. However, it is an inferior synthetic form. Why? Because folic acid has a different molecular structure than natural folate. Meaning it does not match its natural counterpart. Because of its unnatural chemical structure, folic acid can actually block the absorption of natural folate!” —Seeking Health
Why are supplements essential in modern times?
Modern farming practices + mineral-depleted soil
Even if you are eating fresh fruits and vegetables, due to modern farming practices, you are not getting the robust nutrients your grandmother once was. Soil is often not allowed to rest and replenish, and food generally travels hundreds or thousands of miles before it lands on your plate.
Plant foods nowadays are particularly lacking in magnesium and trace minerals. Supplementing is key to getting enough vitamins in your diet!
Stress is one of the biggest factors in nutrient depletion, and today we are experiencing not just stress but constant and chronic stress at levels our bodies aren’t meant to handle. Stress rapidly uses up vitamins and minerals in the body, in particular Vitamin C, the B complex vitamins, Magnesium, and Vitamin D.
When the body lacks the basic building blocks, it will decrease in functioning, leading to exhaustion, hormone issues, anxiety, and even more serious situations like autoimmune disease and other chronic illnesses.
“After even a single high-stress week, your supplies of vitamins and minerals can drop by 30-40 percent.”— Julia Ross, The Mood Cure
Marketing is deceptive
…and designed to make you buy!
Even as a nutritionist passionate about educating others, I often find myself drawn toward flashy supplements with good branding. But are they really effective? Some yes. Most often, NO.
Companies can claim something is natural (because there is no clear definition or regulation on the term natural) by simply adding a minor percentage of “natural” additions to a synthetic product. Yikes.
I love good branding but proceed with caution and always check the ingredients and sourcing!
PS…those gummy vitamins, designed to be sweet and easy, aren’t doing you a whole lot of good.