Most vitamin and mineral supplements contain synthesized, standardized, chemical-isolate vitamins and minerals approved by the United States Pharmacopoeia, which are pressed together with binding agents into a tablet—end of story. But another category of supplements is made in a radically different way.
Often referred to as food-based or food-grown supplements, these products may start with USP ingredients, such as synthetic vitamin C, though some companies use patented processes to extract nutrients from foods. Using proprietary processes, manufacturers either blend these vitamins and minerals with dehydrated whole foods, or culture them with yeasts and live bacteria, in a process similar to making yogurt or miso. The resulting products are sometimes more expensive than conventional vitamins, but many manufacturers believe that they are more beneficial.
Rainbow Light, based in Santa Cruz, Calif., launched the first available line of food-based supplements in 1981. ?[Our] supplements are simply mixed with a food base, such as spirulina, wheat grass or whole food extracts,? says Marci Clow, a registered dietitian and director of education and product information for Rainbow Light. The company?s products are made into tablets using direct compression, like conventional vitamins, but with food-based ingredients rather than common binding agents like magnesium stearate or maltodextrin.
?These products offer ease of digestion with no upset stomach,? Clow says. ?Whether they include whole foods added to the tablet to act as a buffer, or nutrients that are literally grown into a liquid yeast or broth medium, food-based and food-grown supplements allow [the] body to recognize and receive nutrients in a way that offers easier digestion and improved assimilation.?
Indeed, increased bioavailability or nutrient absorption is one of the claims frequently found on these types of supplements. But not everyone agrees that this is the case. ?The main claim for these products is that nutrients in foods are more natural, so they?re absorbed better and that USP nutrients don?t absorb as well,? says Michael Mooney, director of research and education at the Program for Wellness Restoration, a Houston-based nonprofit research and educational organization for people with HIV and AIDS. ?The problem is that nutrients in foods actually don?t absorb as well, because they?re bound to proteins that have to be broken down. Only calcium and vitamin C are easily absorbed from foods, which throws the whole basis for this claim out.?
First Organics Inc., based in Gallup, N.M., manufactures food-based supplements made with certified organic raw materials. Phil Maffetone, the company?s president and formulator, says the distinction between synthetic and natural ingredients is a valid one. ?Natural raw materials would be flax oil, fish oil and vegetable and fruit concentrates,? Maffetone says. ?The body responds to high doses of synthetic nutrients in much the same way it does to drugs, but when a dietary supplement is made from natural raw materials, the body?s response is essentially the same as when we consume a meal. It?s a biological versus a pharmacological response.?
In order to maintain the potency of the organic plant materials used in First Organics? formulations, Maffetone developed special processes. ?We use a freeze-drying process that costs up to 10 times more than traditional drying methods,? he says, ?because we don?t want to destroy nutrients by drying at high heat.?
Maffetone says that using organic raw materials also makes a difference in quality. ?The bottom line is, organic is high-quality food. It has more nutrients and less chemicals, so we start with that.?
Another company using certified organic raw materials is New Chapter of Brattleboro, Vt. New Chapter?s products are cultured using yeast and various strains of lactobacillus. The company describes the products as probiotic nutrients. ?Our products are more expensive and more time-consuming to make,? says President Tom Newmark. ?It?s our feeling that the human physiology does better with organic whole foods; that is the form of nutrients that is easiest for our bodies to recognize, to metabolize and to benefit from.?
New Chapter?s process begins with a brewing tank of purified water, to which soybeans, carrots and a variety of fruits and grains are added. Isolated USP forms of particular nutrients are then introduced, and the mash is cultured using brewer?s yeast. Finally, the products undergo a second fermentation, using the same kinds of cultures found in yogurt, and the resulting culture is dried and made into tablets. The result, Newmark says, is more complex than a conventional supplement. ?We provide the standard array of vitamins and minerals in recommended dosages, but also all the cofactors and antioxidants and protective properties that you find in whole foods but not in isolated chemicals.?
The question of whether food-based and food-grown supplements are better than their conventional counterparts raises strong feelings on both sides of the spectrum. ?What is found in USP nutrients will never be found in nature,? says Daniel Chong, a naturopath based in Beaverton, Ore. ?Foods come with a myriad of different components, many of which the body uses to fully absorb and utilize what the food has to offer. But when a person ingests an isolated nutrient, the body has to draw on its own reserves of the other components the nutrient is supposed to come with. Over time, this can result in deficiencies of these other components.?
Some see differences between conventional and food-based products that transcend the physical level. ?The problem I see with USP nutrients is that a key element is missing—the actual vibration, the energy, the life force of a nutrient,? says Arnel Lindgren, a clinical nutritionist in Los Angeles. ?You can duplicate a nutrient synthetically, but only the physical aspect. Whole foods have nutrient intelligence. When you explain that to people, it feels right to them. It?s not based on pseudo-science; it?s just the way nature operates.?
Mooney believes claims about greater efficiency and higher absorption of food-based supplements are not supported by science. ?There have been over 200,000 studies on what USP nutrients do,? he says. ?The concept that you put food with a vitamin and it becomes magically enhanced is not borne out by science. If you were sitting next to a flamboyant comedian and your chairs touched, would you turn into a comedian? It?s just like a food sitting next to a vitamin in a tablet.?
Since food-based and food-grown supplements are still a fairly new category, using proprietary methods developed by individual manufacturers, there are far fewer studies on such nutrients than those using USP vitamins and minerals. Mooney gives credit to Rainbow Light in particular for ?coming up to speed scientifically? and not making overblown claims for its supplements.
For consumers interested in more easily digestible supplements and concerned about organic ingredients, food-based and food-grown supplements offer an alternative.
Mitchell Clute is a freelance writer in Crestone, Colo.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 7/p. 34, 39