Natural Foods Merchandiser
NFM Secret Shopper: Should I take a synthetic or food-based multivitamin?

NFM Secret Shopper: Should I take a synthetic or food-based multivitamin?

Each month, NFM’s secret shopper heads incognito into a natural products store with a question. The employee’s answer—and our expert’s evaluation of the response—is reported here. Our aim: to help you improve your store’s customer service.

Natural products store in the South

NFM: Should I take a synthetic or food-based multivitamin?

Store: I recommend food-based vitamins. Because your body recognizes them as food, you can take them on an empty stomach. You won’t get nauseous, and they’re absorbed 100 percent. Vitamins that aren’t food based end up in your bloodstream. We can see that from testing your blood.

NFM: So they are literally made of food?

Store: Exactly. That’s why you don’t need to eat with them. Research shows vitamins that aren’t attached to food come out in your urine. There’s no way to tell if they actually work. Whole-food supplements are the safest bet that you’re actually getting what you’ve paid for. 

How did this retailer do?

Our expert educator: Jack Challem, author of No More Fatigue (Wiley, 2011) and The Inflammation Syndrome (Wiley, 2010)

Unfortunately, this sales associate was wrong on several counts. First, no nutrient is absorbed 100 percent. A variety of factors reduce absorption; only a very small percentage of some nutrients (for example, coenzyme Q10) is absorbed under the best circumstances. Second, most vitamins are better absorbed with food, but a meal would be better than the miniscule amount of food in a capsule. Third, anything that is absorbed ends up temporarily in the bloodstream—that’s how nutrients are delivered to tissues. Fourth, a large portion of everything we consume goes out through the urine and feces—otherwise we would overdose on everything from vitamins and minerals to protein.

There are many misunderstandings about whole-food supplements. These supplements contain dehydrated foods, and the amounts of vitamins and minerals inherently found in these foods are extremely small. They may be absorbed very well, but the amounts are still tiny. To achieve larger amounts of vitamins and minerals in whole-food supplements, the dehydrated foods must be blended with either synthetic or natural-source vitamins.

This touches on the issue of what constitutes a synthetic or natural-source vitamin. Vitamins A and E can be derived from either natural or synthetic sources. Vitamins C and B complex are produced through bacterial synthesis, which can be seen as either natural or synthetic, depending on one’s perspective. The process is technically complicated, but it is different from synthetic vitamins that are derived from petrochemicals.

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