Despite their relative prosperity, most people in the developed world are not getting enough nutrients in their diets. Much of this is down to the quality of our food. The use of pesticides in agriculture depletes many of the good microbes responsible for helping crops take up nutrients from the soil while fertilizers are lacking in important trace nutrients. Many of the nutrients that do make it into our foods are then often stripped out during processing and preserving.
To get everything our body needs, we are left with a choice: change our diets to include more organically grown whole foods or supplement our diets with synthetic pills (multivitamins, minerals, amino acids, etc.)
Which is the best option? What’s the difference between natural and synthetic nutrients? Let’s go on natural nutrients vs. synthetic nutrients:
Comparing Natural and Synthetic Nutrients
Warning: this is not as simple a question as it seems!
A natural nutrient is one that has been largely built by nature; it is contained within whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, animal products, whole grains, beans, legumes and more. A synthetic (or isolated) nutrient has been created in a laboratory from other substances and chemicals.
There is heated debate about whether natural or synthetic vitamins are identical or not. The real answer, as always, lies somewhere in between. Take Vitamin C. In terms of a basic definition, it is absolutely true to say that Vitamin C and ascorbic acids are one and the same.
However, when you get Vitamin C from a high-quality natural source (e.g. dehydrated and concentrated citrus fruits) it comes as part of a matrix containing molecules such as rutin, flavonoids, properdin and tyrosinase. With pure ascorbic acid, created from corn starch in a lab, you only get the outer shell of this matrix. The argument about whether this makes any difference rages on. Ascorbic acid alone is clearly adequate for treating some conditions (e.g. the scurvy from which it gets its name) but some studies indicate better performance from whole food sources of Vitamin C and suggest that interactions between molecules of the matrix may be the reason for this.
Similar arguments occur over other vitamins of course including Vitamin A (retinol) and Vitamin E (various tocopherals are all considered forms of this vitamin).
At the heart of this debate is a dispute over what a vitamin is. Whereas some equate the pure active compound as the vitamin itself (e.g ascorbic acid, retinyl acetate or alpha-tocopheral), others argue that vitamins exist as complexes and can only work if all components are available. To them, synthesizing the active ingredient in a lab is akin to substituting a natural vitamin for an artificial drug which may be ineffective or even dangerous.
How can synthetic nutrients be dangerous?
Are synthetic vitamins bad for you?
One fact which is hard to dispute is that it is difficult to overdose on micronutrients when consuming whole foods. Supplements are a different matter and taking too much of a pure substance can be dangerous – and even fatal.
Although it is thought that large amounts of Vitamin C can irritate the stomach due to its acidity, this and other water-based nutrients will be flushed out of the body. This may increase stress on the kidneys but it is the fat soluble vitamins to watch out for because they can build up in the body and become highly toxic.
In particular, we need to be careful of Vitamin A, which can be toxic in high doses and is associated with birth defects if taken in excess by pregnant women.
Consuming too much iron is also dangerous to the body’s organs and can even lead to liver failure and death.
Some complications of over-supplementation are less obvious. Vitamin E, for example, is thought to strip the body of important minerals (including selenium, calcium and magnesium).
Whole Food Benefits to Health
Despite the debate over whether natural and synthetic nutrients are fundamentally the same or drastically different, most sources agree that getting our nutrients from whole foods is preferable.
Here are some of the benefits associated with different whole food groups:
Fruit and vegetables
Fruit and veg contain fiber, vitamins, minerals and plant compounds. Studies suggest that a diet rich in these foods can reduce the incidence of heart disease (by up to 7 percent), cancer, diabetes, arthritis and brain disorders. Nutrients in fruit and veg also help to control blood sugar, lower blood pressure and reduce oxidative stress.
Oily fish contains Omega-3 fatty acids. The body needs to ingest these acids as it is unable to make them. They have been found to benefit the heart and reduce the chances of stroke. One study found that men consuming just one serving a day of oily fish had a 15 percent lower chance of heart disease.
Beans and legumes
Beans, peas and chickpeas are a good source of soluble fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Studies suggest that one serving a day can reduce LDL cholesterol levels by 5 percent and the incidence of heart disease by a similar amount. Beans and legumes may also help prevent diabetes and some cancers.
Nuts and seeds
Nuts and seeds contain antioxidants, minerals and healthy fats. Four servings a week have been linked to a huge 28 percent decrease in heart disease and a 22 percent reduction in diabetes risk.
Whole grains are a good source of fiber, B vitamins and important minerals such as iron, magnesium and selenium. A diet rich in whole grains is linked to reduced risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and obesity.
Enjoy Superfood Natural Nutrition with Greens Plus
As you can see, the best course of action is almost always to opt for a whole food diet with moderate supplementation to counter any deficiencies. The exception is with special diets where deficiency may be more extreme and more supplementation necessary.
Rather than purchase synthetic nutrients, we suggest you check out our green superfood nutrition facts on our product pages. As you will see, the ingredients listed are in terms of whole foods (rather than resembling a chemistry textbook as in many supplements). We have a range of green superfood and superfruit drinks suitable for various special diets. With a superfood drink powder, you get the benefits of whole food supplementation with all the convenience of a handy snack.
As you can see, the difference between ‘natural’ and ‘synthetic’ nutrients (apart from the obvious distinction of where they come from) is not an easy one to make. It largely comes down to whether you trust and accept the majority scientific consensus or have a more holistic view of what a vitamin is and does. Superfood nutrition is, however, a great way to supplement your whole food diet without resorting to lab-made pills.