We shout from the rooftops that our whole food supplements are “100% Whole Food, 0% Nonsense.” In this world of supplement misinformation, the unfortunate truth is that we have to make this distinction.
Search online for whole food supplements and you will find, without doubt, a gluttony of the nonsense we talk about. The term “whole food” is unregulated, and therefore frequently misused. Brands call their products whole food, when in fact, they are just the regular old cheapo vitamins in disguise. Until now, consumers didn’t have a method to tell the difference.
Besides teaching you the difference between TRUE whole food supplements and everything else, we want to teach you about vitamins, in general. For people really passionate about their wellness, they know that whole foods are preferable to regular vitamins. I hope to explain the “why” to crystallize this for them, and introduce the concept to others.
The Big Lie
The discovery of vitamins and the impact of being able to provide them cheaply and easily to those who are deficient has truly been revolutionary. We can nearly eradicate diseases of nutritional deficiency for pennies on the dollar.
Somewhere between this point and today, we were sold a bill of goods. Somehow, it bled into our collective knowledge that using these vitamins in those who aren’t deficient is as good as eating foods that contain those nutrients. This is simply not true. Understanding this is CRUCIAL as a consumer for a variety of reasons. Here’s a nice list:
- You will have less confusion. It’s overwhelming at times. We need to simplify life and be more strategic when it comes to our health, not throw more and more stuff that just won’t work into our lives.
- You will take less, saving you time, energy, and money. You can buy that villa in Italy!
- You can start making REAL interventions (diet OR supplements) that WILL help you be healthier. This is most important to me, for you.
It’s easy to learn all that follows and just give up. “I’m not taking anything!” That is an option, for sure, but not one we intend. Use this information to be better equipped and make solid decisions. Most importantly, use this as a starting point to build a healthy amount of skepticism against the misinformation of the supplement industry.
The Two Types of Vitamin Supplements
This is my favorite analogy to use when discussing vitamins with customers that visit us in Woodstock.
Imagine you are in the store with us in the Town of Hippies, and need to get home. So I hand you a steering wheel and tell you to be on your way. You won’t get very far at all. But you’re chill about it, because this is Woodstock, man….
While a steering wheel is a crucial component of a car, it will not drive you.
Giving you Vitamin C is like handing you a steering wheel. Giving you an orange is giving you the car. Giving you a true whole food supplement is like giving you a car that is missing hubcaps or the bumper. It’s not perfect, but it gets the job done.
When vitamins exist on their own, outside of their food sources, they are called isolates. Dehydrated, properly processed powders from ground up foods are whole foods. Whole food powders will contain vitamins, but they will also contain other important nutrients and cofactors typically found with those vitamins. An orange has thousands of identified compounds (and many unidentified), and Vitamin C is just one of those.
Our goal is to live longer, have less disease, and be happier. Traditional isolate multivitamins will not do that for us, and there’s now LOTS of evidence that proves that. No matter how much we want it, traditional multivitamins are just a box with steering wheels, radio knobs, and windshield wipers—they are not the whole car and will not drive us anywhere. We must eat a healthy, varied diet to accomplish this goal.
An Important Distinction
When we talk about synthetic vitamins not making us healthy, we are talking about it from a nutritional standpoint—the prevention of disease, making us healthier, helping us live longer.
Synthetic vitamins WILL help us correct a problem if it exists. If you have low Vitamin D, you can and SHOULD use Vitamin D (a single, isolated vitamin that is usually synthetic) to get your numbers up. If you are B12 deficient, taking B12 is DEFINITELY what should be done.
Going with our steering wheel analogy, look at it like this: Someone who is deficient in Vitamin C has a car, but the steering wheel is missing. They ONLY need the steering wheel! Putting the steering wheel back quickly is important.
If this deficiency can be corrected with foods, we try that first. But there is often a sense of urgency with deficiencies, or we need consistency or potency to ensure the correction. Isolate vitamins are truly a gift here, and they should be used.
It’s all about the goal. If you are trying to be healthier, use food first. If you are doing good work with your diet but still want to try to ensure you are checking off all the boxes, use a 100% real whole food supplement. If you have a low vitamin number that your doctor found on a blood test, an isolate is what you need.
The Four Types of Vitamin Supplements
“Wait, you just said there are two types of vitamins, now there’s four?” You are correct! There are truly only two types of vitamins—real whole food supplements and everything else. When you shop for multivitamins, though, you’ll find four different versions of this—subcategories, if you will. These are the different types of products you can buy:
1. Isolate Vitamins in Common/Cheapest Forms
The “Isolated Cheapo.” This is Centrum or Flintstones vitamins. I picked those two because most savvy shoppers know these are the “lower tier” of quality. It’s easy to be condescending, as they are “cheap” and mass market, but many of the so-called designer vitamins are simply expensive Centrum and Flintstones vitamins. Price gouging is a real thing in these lower tiers; the cost of making a synthetic, isolated vitamin is VERY low. The one advantage to the Isolated cheapo is that these are one-a-day products.
2. Isolate Vitamins in More Bioavailable/Absorbable Forms
The “Isolated Fancy.” These products are a bit more sophisticated. They are for people who truly need to ensure they have no deficiency and want to ensure they are absorbed and utilized better. B Vitamins, in particular, are in methylated forms (instead of folic acid, they use l-methylfolate). Minerals are in better forms, like special chelates. Typically these require more than a single pill each day. I’m ok with these, if people want to use something like this because of cost or ease of use. We recommend this: Coenzyme Multi
3. Real Whole Food Vitamins
It’s important we discuss this before we get into the fake whole food products so we understand what we are trying to accomplish. Real whole food products use exclusively food powders, processed properly, as their active ingredients. These can be done wrong, too! If they heat the product too much, it will degrade the food powders, for example. Also, if you don’t put enough food powder in, you won’t yield the vitamins you need (more on this in the future). Foods take up lots of space, so these products require people to take multiples a day; taking 2-6 tablets or a big scoop of powder is not uncommon.
4. Fake Whole Food Vitamins
Finally, to the meat of it! Fake whole food vitamins are made with the intention of deceiving customers. This can’t be sugar-coated or denied. Whether blatant or discrete, the intent is to fool you.
There are two main ways to fake whole food vitamins are made:
- Feed isolated, synthetic vitamins (in cheapo or fancy forms) to yeast or other bacteria.
- Use isolated, synthetic vitamins and mix them with small amounts of food powder.
For the first method, they are telling us it “biotransforms” the nutrient, turning it into something more magical that our bodies can incorporate. If you check the label, though, it’s clear to see they are typically just the synthetic isolates. Put into real food terms, it’s like going to a restaurant and saying, “Can I have the bowl of Brewer’s yeast and vitamin powders?” That doesn’t sound like food to me. They are stretching, very thinly, the definition of food.
The second method is a tad bit closer to what we’d want, but still no cigar. A picture is worth a thousand words, so I want to include an image of one of their supplement facts panels:
Here’s how you read a whole food supplement label and judge it. First, the asterisk denotes they are using synthetic vitamins. Secondly, the circled area is the “food blends.” Follow these steps to realize how silly this product is:
- Pick one of the food blends. Let’s do the Organic Fruit & Vegetable blend. It says 870 mg.
- Divide the 870 mg by the serving size (3 capsules) to show how much food powder is in each capsule. That number is 290.
- Count how many ingredients are in that blend. It’s 24. Divide the 290 by 24. That means 12 mg of each of those ingredients in each capsule. (We are making the incorrect assumption there is an equal amount of each ingredient. More likely than not, there are varying amounts. But for the sake of easiness, let’s say it’s even.)
So this whole food product is giving you 12mg of kale, for example, for every capsule you take. In case you aren’t a science major who’s had to weigh out milligrams before, a paperclip is 1 gram, so if you cut it into 1000, 1 of those pieces is a milligram. So 12 of those pieces is how much kale this “whole food” vitamin gives you per capsule. I probably don’t have to tell you, but there isn’t much of anything nutritious in so little food. You’d need about 1000 capsules to equal a serving of dehydrated kale. In a future article, I’m going to take it a step further teach you about it, but for now let’s leave it at “12mg is ridiculously low and insulting that they’d include so little and charge so much.”
Looking then at the Organic Sprout blend, we don’t need to do much math. They are saying ALL of those ingredients account for 10mg in every 3 capsules, or 3.3 mg per capsule. It’s disturbing, isn’t it?
Fake whole food vitamins that use the second method make people fall for the, “Well, it’s on the label, so it’s good.”
It’s not only about WHAT is in the bottle, but HOW MUCH.
Neither of those 2 methods for making the fakers are done by only a few small, rogue brands. THE brands are doing this…. The big ones…. The top sellers that are out there in almost every store where vitamins are sold.
Here’s a table that shows what Vitamin B and C would look like, from an ingredient standpoint in each of these types of multivitamins:
We often hear a bit of pushback from people about whole food options. People’s natural response to all of this info is, “I eat very well, but I want to make sure I’m getting ALL those micronutrients, since my diet fluctuates on a day-to-day basis, so therefore I probably can just use a regular vitamin.” The consumer wants to cover their bases, but wants to keep it simple.
I understand this logic. There are two things to consider here. First, if you truly are eating well, small fluctuations in your diet will not have a negative impact, even on a longer timeline. If you still want to cover your bases and really exceed your wellness goals, you should use products that will truly help you. Supplement where you REALLY need to supplement and use products that will provide the right amounts of the right compounds.
If you eat healthy (we can help review your diet to ensure you are really knocking it out of the park), look at your diet and supplement things more strategically. Don’t eat lots of organ meats? Eat a whole food B supplement. Don’t eat varied greens? Use a proper green blend. Missing more colorful or rare fruits? Look to superfoods. Not hitting your protein goals? Use a great protein powder.
I try to drop in some financial analytics into this, as well. People who push back against REAL whole food vitamins because they typically have a higher price tag. This is true; it costs more to do it right. The issue is twofold. First, fake whole food vitamins and “high end” isolates can cost the same, if not more. And those products DEFINITELY don’t cost more from a raw material standpoint, so they are just overcharging to give the illusion of premium products. Secondly, it is literally a waste of money to use an isolate vitamin or fake whole food vitamin for the purpose of “being healthier.” Save money by using higher quality, better made products.
The Fact Remains
Putting aside the point that food is better than isolated vitamins to make you healthier, the single fact remains: Companies who sell fake whole food vitamins are intentionally deceiving people and misrepresenting the product.
This practice is wrong. It speaks volumes about the system:
- The misinformation: How many bloggers and “experts” recommend these products and represent them as superior?
- The manufacturers: Utilizing marketing terms to move more units, when they will most definitely have staff that KNOW these things aren’t true
- The retailers: Turning a blind eye. Not asking questions. Just selling because it is popular or marketed well. And worse, having people on their staff reinforcing the whole thing to make more money.
Ultimately, it’s up to us as consumers to educate ourselves. I fear that people “in the know” will be a small portion of the overall market. REAL whole food vitamins will be specialty products that don’t have mass appeal. It’s not a price thing, either. Synthetic vitamins posing as premium can be MUCH more expensive than a real whole food formula. Fake whole food products are the same. Price is all over the place and doesn’t correlate to quality or form. Value, on the other hand, is radically different.
The Journey Outward
If this article can help you understand one concept, it’s to think that vitamins, while crucial, are just one component of food. It is healthy food that makes us healthy, not just the vitamins in there.
Here’s a little lightning round to reinforce these concepts:
- What’s best for us/will make us healthier? Food. Good sound nutrition.
- What will get us pretty close to that goal? A well made, real whole food supplement.
- What WON’T do that at all? Normal, synthetic vitamins.
- What’s worse than telling people synthetic vitamins are the same as eating? Selling synthetic vitamins and telling people they are whole food.
Need help telling the difference? We strive to be your supplement advocate. If you want to use a supplement, no matter what, we can help you learn what to look out for when purchasing them. The experts at Woodstock Vitamins can help teach you how to read a supplement label to determine if you are caught in the “Garden of Lies” with fake whole food vitamins and how to get out.
Just trying to keep it real…
Neal Smoller, PharmD
Owner, Pharmacist, Big Mouth
Our 100% Real Whole Food Vitamins are Vitality Approved, so you can be sure that you’re getting quality products: pure, potent, and consistent batch to batch.