Understanding vitamins: synthetic vitamins vs. whole food concentrates

I find myself explaining the difference between synthetic and whole food concentrate supplements almost every day. For this reason, I decided to dig back into the Red Clover Clinic Newsletter archive and republish this article. I hope it will clear up any confusion on the subject.


To achieve optimal health, my nutrition practice recommends a good, organic diet with supplementation from whole food concentrates, herbs, and homeopathic remedies. I am often asked to muscle-test the various vitamins that people are taking to see if the body likes them. Whether inexpensive vitamins from Target or very expensive ones from the local coop, these vitamins are synthetic. In almost every instance, synthetic vitamins don’t test well. They actually stress the body over time.

What’s the difference between synthetic vitamins and whole food concentrates? 

Vitamin complexes were first identified in food in the early part of the 20th century. As the science of vitaminology developed, scientists identified, then isolated, what they thought was the active component in each vitamin complex. They then concentrated the individual component into a high potency pill. If some is good, more is better…right?

Nutrient isolates are produced in the same manner as pharmaceutical drugs. Furthermore, since the middle of the 20th century, these vitamins have been produced from chemicals, cheap oils, coal tar, corn starch, and petroleum.

There is a type of supplement that can be labeled a “whole food supplement” that is better than what is described above, but still isn’t the same as a whole food concentrate. These are vitamins that have been cultured in yeast. To make this type of product, minerals and synthetic vitamins are “fed” to yeast. The yeast are then processed to form the supplement. The idea is that a cultured (pre-digested) product is more bioavailable. These supplements tend to have a lower potency than full synthetic vitamins, which makes them a little closer to what nature intended.

The best supplement choice, however, is whole food concentrates which, as the term implies, are concentrated whole foods. Why are they better than synthetic vitamins? They contain complete vitamin complexes as they are found in nature. They still have all of the cofactors (the individual parts of the complex) that act as catalysts, which makes them more absorbable and thus effective. The idea is that if you give the body the basic nutritional building blocks, it will be able to sustain normal function, healthy growth, and tissue repair. Standard Process is one of very few companies that produces a complete line of true whole food supplements.

How do synthetic vitamins cause harm to the body?

Since synthetic vitamins are isolates, and lack the cofactors that the body needs to absorb them, the body’s stores of these cofactors are depleted. In other words, taking an isolate in a high potency causes relative deficiencies within the vitamin complex. Someone may initially feel improvement by taking a synthetic vitamin, but after awhile, as the cofactors are depleted, they begin to feel worse. In fact, they may begin to experience symptoms of a deficiency of the very same vitamin they are taking. Furthermore, high potency vitamins place stress on the organs of elimination (kidneys, liver, and bowels), just as any drug does. Ultimately, this will cause harm to the body.

How can you tell whether a supplement is synthetic or a whole food concentrate?

The best way to learn about a supplement is to read the label. Look below for a comparison of two labels. On the left you see a standard vitamin C label. It states that the C is in the form of ascorbic acid, which is an isolate, not the whole vitamin complex. You will also notice that each tablet contains 1000 mg of ascorbic acid, which is 1,667% of the recommended daily value. One small orange contains 51 mg of vitamin C. So one tablet of this supplement provides the equivalent of almost 20 oranges. I don’t think Mother Nature intended for someone to eat that many oranges in one sitting!

The whole food concentrate C complex label is very different, and possibly a bit confusing. One serving (3 tablets) provides you with 25% of the recommended daily value. The big actors in this supplement, the source of the vitamin C, are listed on the bottom half of the label. You’ll notice many different foods listed, all high in the C complex. They are in their whole food form, which is easy for the body to recognize and assimilate. More is not always better; it is the form that really counts.

When you can, eat whole foods. When you can’t, eat whole food concentrates. Bottom line: eat food, not chemicals!