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.
Related: 5 Ways To Eat More Immune-Boosting 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.
Related: 6 Things You Need To Know Before Taking A Collagen Supplement
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.