Vitamin Supplements â€“ or food?
Although food is our prime source of nutrition, 42% of Australians are now taking some kind of regular vitamin supplement (source: Roy Morgan July 2014 â€“ June 2015).
Why is this?
- Are we too busy, or too lazy to eat properly?
- Is the food we eat nutrient poor?
- Or have we been deceived by advertising into believing that popping a vitamin supplement every day is essential, and will actually enhance our health?
What are vitamins?
According to a medical dictionary, the traditional definition of a vitamin is: â€œa general term for a number of unrelated organic substances that occur in many foods in small amounts and that are necessary for the normal metabolic functioning of the bodyâ€.
Vitamins are essential organic substances that are classified into water-soluble and fat-soluble vitamins. Itâ€™s important to note that our bodies must consume vitamins already made; we cannot synthesize them from scratch.
First, the word, â€œsmallâ€ needs some attention. The daily amounts of vitamins recommended for consumption can be as low as 3 micrograms for vitamin B12. 30g is almost enough for 10 million people!
We only need 1.5 milligrams per day of riboflavinâ€¦ 30g should last you 50 years.
Vitamin C is different: the daily amount recommended (60 milligrams) would require about 30g over one year.
Just because these are tiny amounts, it does not minimize their physiological importance. Donâ€™t consume them for a while, and your health will deteriorate rapidly.
If a vitamin is absent from the diet or if our body can't properly absorb it, a specific deficiency disease may develop. This was first noted by the Englishman William Fletcher in 1905 while researching the causes of the disease Beriberi, which he observed was prevented by eating unpolished rather than polished rice. He concluded that the husk of rice must have special nutrients, which we know today as vitamins.
It was in 1912 that Casmir Funk and the British biochemist Sir Fredrick Hopkins (one of the founders of modern biochemistry) proposed the Vitamin Hypothesis of Deficiency, theorizing that the absence of a particular vitamin in oneâ€™s diet could lead to certain diseases.
History of the Vitamin craze
The fact that vitamin C could cure scurvy, thiamin (vitamin B1) could cure beriberi, and niacin could cure pellagra sent out a message that science had surely discovered nutrients with awesome health promoting credentials (although we now know that these linkages are not so simple). The concept of vitamins was off to an auspicious beginning in the early part of the century.
In the 1930s many more discoveries were made in the world of biochemical nutrition.
These were heady days (1920s-1940s) for nutritional science when all the vitamins were named and classified.
By the late 1970s, vitamins had become a global mega-business. Industry backed studies were prolific supporting a growing belief that vitamin pills could be just as effective as vitamins ingested in their natural (food) form.
Today, thirteen vitamins are universally recognized - 4 fat-soluble (A, D, E, and K) and 9 water-soluble (8 B vitamins and vitamin C) - and we are given the recommended daily intake (RDI) for each one. The RDIs are the minimum wage of nutrition: you can barely survive on them. The RDI for vitamin C will keep you from getting scurvy, but doesnâ€™t protect you well from the onslaught of environmental toxins. RDIâ€™s are of course only guides for the average person, not pregnant women, seniors, hard yakka labourers, invalids and those with minor or major medical problems.
In Australia, the vitamins and supplements industry is big business worth an estimated $1.5bn each year. The Swisse brand, a privately owned Australian venture, is the rising star, with a legion of sports personalities and Hollywood names such as Nicole Kidman and Ellen DeGeneres promoting its motto. According to Swisseâ€™s chief executive, Radek Sali, â€œIf itâ€™s not harming anyone and it is making people feel healthier and happier, why wouldnâ€™t we have more of that?â€
This approach has come in for criticism from some in the medical community who accuse the industry of selling products for the gullible without strong evidence that they work.
A worrying body of research now shows the vitamin supplements youâ€™re taking to protect your health may, in fact, be increasing your risk of disease, and even premature death.
And yet, despite such findings, the sale of supplements generally continues to rise, with the biggest boost seen in individual supplements, for example, vitamin C capsules (also known as ascorbic acid).
- An early study from 1994 found regularly taking beta carotene supplements (a 20â€‰mg pill) increased the risk of death from lung cancer by 8 percent.
- A 2002 study found large doses of vitamin C (1g) and E (800â€‰iu â€” the unit by which some vitamins are measured) almost trebled the risk of premature death among postmenopausal women.
- In 2010, scientists found that taking antioxidant supplements (vitamins A, C, E, beta carotene) could increase bladder cancer risk by 50 percent.
- A U.S. study last year found vitamin E supplements (dose of 150â€‰iu) increased the risk of prostate cancer by 17 percent, with the risk of death increasing as the dose got larger.
A meta-analysis of trials published in 2008 found that dietary vitamin C (from food such as oranges and red peppers) can offer protection against heart disease, and even reduce the risk of breast cancer in women with a family history of the disease. But the same trials found these reductions in risk did not exist in those taking vitamin C supplements, reported the European Journal of Cardiovascular Prevention and Rehabilitation.
A diet rich in fruit and vegetables provides around 200â€‰mg vitamin C per day, yet supplement doses of 1000mg (1g) are routinely taken. At best, this seems to be money wasted.
At worst, an excessive intake of some nutrients (in pill form) can actually diminish the effect of other nutrients, causing real health problems.
Vitamins are not single entities
Today many scientists and biochemists are discovering that vitamins (eg. Vitamin C) are not just single organic compounds but that they are all complex entities. In health food stores, when you purchase vitamin C you will see varieties called Vitamin C Complex, which is closer to the actual vitamin than ascorbic acid alone.
Nature does not produce any nutrient in an isolated form. The nutrients in foods are blended together in a specific way and work best in that format. For an isolated nutrient to work properly in the body, it needs all the other parts that are naturally present in the food too.
If the parts are not all there from the start, they are taken from the body's stored supply. This is why isolated nutrients often work for a little while, then seem to stop working. Once your body's store of the extra nutrients is used up, the isolated nutrient you're taking doesn't work as well anymore. Worse yet, a deficiency in these extra nutrients can be created in your body.
For example, thousands of women take supplementary calcium for protection from osteoporosis. However, for calcium to enter the bones, it needs to be attached to a phosphate molecule.When the supplement enters the blood, the body takes phosphate out of the bones to stick it to the calcium. The bones end up with less phosphate and no added calcium, so the calcium supplement is actually making the bones weaker.
Whole food supplements, made from concentrated whole foods (as opposed to single vitamin supplements) are closer to what nature intended. 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.
Nutrients from within this complex cannot be taken apart or isolated from the whole, and then be expected to do the same job in the body as the whole complex is designed to do.
The potency of a supplement has much more to do with synergy than with actual nutrient levels. It is a combined effect of all the parts of the food, rather than the chemical effect of a single part, that is most important.
Synthetic versus food vitamins
Vitamins ingested through food are in a physiochemical form that the body recognizes. Under a microscope you can see they are made up of very small rounded particles. They also contain food factors that increase bio-availability and absorption.
Synthetic vitamins are larger and crystalline in structure (straight edges). These fractionated, synthetic vitamins do not replicate all the natural functions of food vitamins in the body. In most cases, they are simply chemical isolates. What does this mean? It means that the Vitamin C listed on the label was made in a lab â€“ not extracted from an orange.
Most vitamins sold are synthetically processed petroleum and/or hydrogenated sugar extracts and unnatural for the human body. Food vitamins are functionally superior to synthetic vitamins as they tend to be preferentially absorbed and/or retained by the body. Isolated, non-food vitamins, even when not chemically different are only fractionated nutrients.
The Vitamin C or Vitamin A that comes in a bottle is MUCH different than what comes in an orange or a carrot. Some studies show that up to 90% of chemical isolate vitamins are eliminated in urine without being absorbed by the body. This is why vitamins that are isolated from their whole food structure or synthetically created in a lab are often useless and may do more harm than good.
Get all your vitamins from your food?
The main argument for taking vitamin supplements is that we don't get enough nutrients from food.
Levels of key minerals, such as potassium, magnesium, calcium and iron in our soils, have fallen by almost 50 per cent over the past 50 years, which has affected the nutrient density of the food available in our markets and supermarkets.
- our diets are too high in refined food, or
- the fresh fruit and vegetables we are eating are nutrient poor, or
- both of the above!
Some nutritionists believe that obtaining optimal quantities of vitamins and minerals through food alone is almost impossible, now that most food we eat is nutritionally impoverished through intensive farming and processing.
Given the scientific evidence that the health effects of food are derived from the synergistic interactions of nutrients and other compounds within and among the foods we eat, itâ€™s time we re-designed our views on vitamins, and accepted that they ARE abundantly present in plant and whole foods and that they are best consumed in this way.
Grow your own vitamins
For those who wish to maximise the absorption of their vitamin and mineral intake, take note that the nutrient density of home-grown organic fruit and vegetables is far superior to what is commercially available.
Consuming vitamin supplements is not necessary to achieve â€˜vitaminâ€™ health. At best, they can only fill some gaps. Eating nutrient dense food is the preferred option.
And besides, Iâ€™d much prefer a big bowl of fruit salad to a vitamin pill. What about you?