Vitamins are “essential nutrients,” meaning our bodies cannot produce 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, and to ward off disease.

But it doesn’t seem to be working very well. Are we missing something?

Modern science considers the nutritional value of food as coming from isolated nutrients, like vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. These nutrients are mostly seen as single molecules; for example, thiamine mononitrate is thought to provide all the benefits we get from vitamin B1.

However, I was trained to look at it differently. I was taught nutrition from a holistic viewpoint, with the theory that a vitamin is actually a whole complex of hundreds or even thousands of molecules that work together, and the nutritional value of a food is more than just the sum of its nutrients. There is a synergy to whole vitamins and foods that is missing from our processed foods, despite the fact that they have vitamins and minerals added back in — highly refined ones, of course.

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. Even the heating required for pasteurization can damage the vitamin content of foods. Outbreaks of scurvy were noticed in children in the early 1900s 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, and will lose its health benefits, when it is highly processed. For example, vitamin C can be bought in pill form and is commonly added to our foods. But what are we 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 the vitamin C complex. Pure ascorbic acid is a highly unnatural, unbalanced nutrient, and may cause problems in the body when taken in large doses.

Dr. Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, the chemist given the Nobel Prize for his work on ascorbic acid, actually discovered that a less refined source of the vitamin C complex was more effective at treating scurvy, especially the bruising and bleeding problems associated with it.

Is it just me, or does it seem ironic that we use highly refined 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.

In our office we recommend “whole food” vitamins. These are produced with minimal processing, with the idea of keeping the vitamin complex intact. For example, they are made without using heat, which is known to damage many vitamins. The theory is that a normal dose of the whole vitamin complex is more effective than a massive dose of a fraction of it. Some of them actually retain the flavor of the food source; one mineral supplement has a mild seaweed taste.

Thankfully it is not necessary to chew them.

Dr. Michael Noonan practices chiropractic, chiropractic acupuncture and other wellness therapies in Old Town. He can be reached at