Vitamins are “essential nutrients” meaning our bodies cannot make them, and they have to be supplied in the diet. We are advised to consume all kinds of vitamin and mineral supplements to improve health, energy and looks, as well as to ward off disease. But it doesn’t seem to be working very well. Are we missing something?
The modern scientific view of nutrition is called reductionistic. From this viewpoint, the nutritional value of food comes from isolated nutrients, like vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. These nutrients are mostly seen as single molecules that supply the health benefits. There is, however, another way of looking at it. I was taught nutrition from a holistic viewpoint, with the theory that the nutritional value of a food is more than just the sum of its nutrients. There is a synergy to whole foods that is just not present in our processed foods, despite the fact that they have (highly processed) vitamins and minerals added back in.
It is telling that vitamin deficiency diseases have been associated with the processing of food. Vitamin B1, or thiamin, was discovered because people who ate brown rice did not develop beriberi, while those who ate white rice (and whose diets were otherwise poor) did. It turns out that most of the thiamin in rice is lost when it is refined from brown to white. The same is true for many nutrients. Even the heating required for pasteurization can damage the vitamin content of foods; outbreaks of scurvy were noticed in children when their milk supply changed from raw milk to pasteurized.
According to my training and clinical experience, a vitamin may no longer be a vitamin (or at least it will lose some of its health benefits) when it is overly processed. Today’s popular vitamin supplements are refined to the point that they are just one molecule, rather than a whole complex of substances, as they appear naturally. For example, vitamin C can be bought in pill form and is commonly added to our foods.
But what is it that we are actually consuming? A single molecule, ascorbic acid. There is absolutely no natural source of pure ascorbic acid! It just doesn’t appear in nature this way. It does, however, appear in very small amounts as part of a vitamin complex. Pure ascorbic acid is a highly unnatural, unbalanced nutrient.
Dr. Szent-Gyorgyi, who received the Nobel Prize for his work on vitamin C, wrote that in his personal experience, pure ascorbic acid was not effective in treating scurvy. What was effective was a partial extract of the source plant, rich in vitamin C complex.
Does it seem ironic that we use highly processed vitamin and mineral supplements to replenish the reduced nutritional value of our overly processed food? It would seem we are making the same mistake twice.
I’m not saying there is no benefit to isolated vitamins; some studies do show they help. But there have also been studies that suggest they have side effects. This is not a big surprise; highly refined vitamins resemble drugs more than nutrients. This is why in our office we recommend a diet of whole foods and only use minimally processed vitamin and mineral supplements. I find they work more like a vitamin ought to.
While some “whole food” supplements do contain a small amount of the typical isolated vitamins, their main ingredients are the foods that are their natural sources. For example, if you chew the minimally processed multivitamin we use, it tastes a bit like liver. This is because they use liver as one of the ingredients. Liver happens to be a very rich source of many nutrients. And one of their mineral supplements, especially rich in iodine, has a mild seaweed taste; kelp is used because it is naturally rich in minerals.
These raw materials are processed to concentrate their nutritional value, but not to the point that they lose all their cofactors and the other nutrients that, from a holistic point of view, are as essential as the core of the vitamin. And, for better or worse, they also keep some of the taste. Thankfully it is not necessary to chew them. And they can be a great option for all of us picky eaters who would otherwise never eat liver or seaweed, unless we were bribed with a chocolate sundae or whoopie pie afterwards.
Dr. Michael Noonan practices chiropractic, chiropractic acupuncture and other wellness therapies in Old Town. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.