If you’ve ever spent half an hour in the vitamin aisle only to leave empty-handed, you know that shopping for a supplement can be confusing.
Even after talking with your doctor and deciding which specific supplement you need (you did do that, right?) it seems like a million questions still remain. Should you splurge on something made from whole foods? Look for a specific certification to guarantee that the stuff inside the bottle is actually safe?
The world of vitamins and supplements is less regulated than you might expect. Label claims aren’t always straightforward, which means that a quick scan of the front of the bottle may not be enough to tell you what you’re really getting.
But it’s easy to shop smarter once you have a basic handle on what sets different types of supplements apart, plus what to zero in on when you’re looking at a product label. Here’s what you should know.
Vitamins and supplements aren’t required to get approval from the FDA. So you can’t blindly trust that anything you find on Amazon or even at your favorite health food store is going to be safe. “It’s important to do your own research to ensure that the supplements you’re taking are actually made up of the ingredients they say they’re made up of,” says Megan Faletra, integrative registered dietician and founder of the nutrition counseling service The Well Essentials.
That’s where third-party certifications come in. It’s a good idea to stick with products verified by the US Pharmacopeial Convention (USP), NSF, or ConsumerLab, recommends Faletra. Backed by scientists and medical professionals, these independent organizations are dedicated to testing the safety and quality of supplements. Look for certification seals right on the bottle.
The difference between whole food and synthetic supplements
There might be countless vitamins and supplements out there, but all of them fall into one of two categories: Whole food or synthetic.
Whole food supplements are pretty much what they sound like. Some (or all) of their nutrients are derived from food sources like fruits, vegetables, or herbs. The ingredients are typically juiced, pulverized, or dehydrated to create extracts or concentrates. The extracts or concentrates are then packaged into a food-based shell or coating, often made from plant cellulose or organic maltodextrin.
Among whole food supplements, you’ll come across some that tout extra benefits on their label:
Farm to tablet. These supplements source their ingredients directly from farms (often organic farms). That makes it easier for consumers to trace ingredients back to their original source, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that farm to tablet supplements are better or more effective than generic whole foods supplements, says Faletra. There’s no certifying body that verifies whether ingredients are truly farm-sourced, so it’s up to consumers to do their research. Good choice: Brands like MegaFood, Garden of Life, and Gaia are all good choices.
Raw. Raw supplements like vitamins and protein powders are made from fruits and vegetables that are processed at a lower temperature (usually below 116°F). Some experts claim that raw supplements deliver more nutrition than those treated with heat. But like with the benefits of a raw food diet, the benefits are still inconclusive. Good choice: Look for brands like Sunwarrior or Garden of Life’s Vitamin Code.
Cultured. The nutrients in cultured vitamin and mineral supplement are fermented using probiotics, which may make the nutrients easier to digest and absorb. Good choice: Look for brands like New Chapter or Nutrigold.
Then, there are synthetic supplements, which contain isolated nutrients that are made in a lab and derived from ingredients like coal tar, rock or chalk, or genetically modified bacteria. These supplements can sometimes also contain some food-based nutrients. But unlike whole food supplements, the nutrients are packaged up in a non-food shell or coating, made from ingredients like methylene chloride, a possible carcinogen. (Here are 15 common supplement ingredients that could be making you seriously sick.)
There’s good reason to assume that whole food or food-based supplements are better for you. An orange or bell pepper, for instance, doesn’t just contain vitamin C. It also serves up hundreds of other chemical components that all work in harmony to nourish the body, findings show. A food-based vitamin C supplement would deliver all of those synergistic components—but a synthetic form of vitamin C wouldn’t have any of them, says Schulick. It would just be isolated vitamin C.
That synergy may make whole food supplements more nutritious than their synthetic counterparts, advocates say. The nutrients may also be more easily absorbed, thanks to that food-based shell or coating. (Remember the bread bowl?) These claims are far from definitive, though. “There is ongoing research to determine how our body best utilizes and absorbs supplements, and much of it is still limited and controversial,” says Faletra.
Still, there may be other good reasons to pick whole food supplements. For starters, synthetic supplements are more likely to contain harmful or non-food fillers or additives like partially hydrogenated oils, talc, or titanium dioxide. Some users also find that these supplements are gentler on their stomachs than synthetic ones. Plus, some whole food products—like farm-to-tablet supplements—make it easy to trace exactly where the fruits and vegetables that went into your pill came from.
Whole food supplements can still contain synthetic ingredients
Sometimes, synthetic nutrients are simply more potent than their whole food counterparts. Factors like soil nutrients and other growing conditions means that the concentration of vitamins and minerals in food-based nutrients can vary—not every orange has exactly the same amount of vitamin C, for instance. So it’s not uncommon for whole food supplements to also contain some isolated vitamins or minerals to ensure it contains the advertised levels of nutrients, explains Myron Lyskanycz, CEO of Halo Purely for Pets, who spent nearly 10 years in the natural supplement industry. Ferrous fumarate (iron) and ascorbic acid (vitamin C) are two common examples.
The important thing is that whole food supplements are still encased in a food-based shell. This tells the body that the nutrients are being delivered in a food-based source—which may be easier on the stomach and more absorbable—even if some of the nutrients come from synthetic sources, Lyskanycz says.
A third-party certification will ensure that a supplement is safe. But that alone doesn’t mean that the supplement is right for you. To figure that out, you need to read the ingredients list.
If you’re looking for a whole food supplement, look for mostly food ingredients that are easily recognizable—like carrot pulp or beet juice powder. If a product is entirely synthetic, you’ll see mostly isolated vitamins and minerals instead—like ascorbic acid (an isolate of vitamin C) or ferrous fumarate (an isolate of iron).
Certified organic supplements will automatically be free of artificial additives. But they can still contain carrageenan, a thickener linked to GI problems and increased inflammation that’s worth avoiding, Faletra says. Finally, keep an eye out for any ingredients that you might be sensitive to, like wheat or soy, which might be used as fillers.
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