On Nutrition by Ed Blonz

Foods or Supplements: Which Provides Better Nutrients?

DEAR DR. BLONZ: I continue to hear that the vitamins in foods are superior to those in dietary supplements, but supplement companies claim that theirs are “whole food” supplements -- the same as what you get from food. Does the human body make a distinction? -- G.Q., St. Louis, Missouri

DEAR G.Q.: A vitamin is a vitamin, whether it comes from food or is made in a lab. To the body, that vitamin is an essential chemical that it cannot make on its own in sufficient quantities to satisfy its needs.

That answers your main question, but the discussion does not stop there. If your question had been whether it’s better to get our essential nutrients from foods or out of a bottle, my response would be different.

For perspective, consider that many tales of nutrient discovery have begun as medical studies where animals’ health went awry for unknown reasons. The design of such studies usually includes an experimental group, which receives the treatment being studied, and a control group that receives no treatment. (For the purpose of this example, we will assume that the treatment being studied has nothing to do with nutrition.) To keep the focus on the potential effect of the treatment, both groups receive a similar diet -- usually one that contains all the nutrients known to be essential at the time.

Studies like these might not start as detective stories, but that is what they often become when the control group’s animals fail to thrive in some way. This is the group that should have coasted through the study with no issues.

At that point, attention turns to the conditions of the experiment to see if something there might be responsible. In the early days of nutrition research, it was often discovered that the animals’ supposedly complete diets were missing something. Researchers then isolated and described the needed compounds, which, after extensive study, joined the list of essential nutrients. (For more on the early history of nutrition, see b.link/2nkycj.)

These days, we have good methods to determine what amount of a nutrient is needed to prevent a deficiency, and we have learned that there are, indeed, circumstances where certain people need to supplement. However, science is still working on understanding how nutrients work together, such as how the ratio between two essential nutrients can also affect our metabolism. For example, the amount of zinc in relation to copper may be just as important as the levels of these nutrients individually.

In addition, there is still work to be done on the interactions between nutrients, medications and herbs with the aging process, stress and various other health problems.

“Modern” science will always have an aura of “the epitome of knowledge,” but we are far from knowing all there is to know about health and nutrition. So, while the body might not distinguish between nutrients in food versus identical substances in a supplement, the package most likely to contain the supporting cast for any nutrient is the whole food in which it is produced.

Our lives are a snapshot in time, but whole foods are the packages that continue to be perfected through successive generations. We get the benefit of this noblest of nature’s forces when we head first for the produce aisle, rather than thinking we can get the equivalent from a supplement.

Send questions to: “On Nutrition,” Ed Blonz, c/o Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO, 64106. Send email inquiries to questions@blonz.com. Due to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.