Synthetic supplements vs. whole food-based vitamins and minerals (aka “natural supplements”)
What is the difference between synthetic supplements and “natural supplements”?
This is a question we get a lot.
When it comes to nutrients, aiming to get the majority of your vitamins, minerals, and macros from whole, unprocessed foods will always be ideal.
But let’s face it.
But the average lifestyle is busy, and doesn’t easily lend itself to getting in a colorful, varied plate at every meal.
So, for those of us who
- Work long and/or irregular hours
- Prioritize others, caring for family and friends
- Manage existing medical conditions
- Balance personal stressors from our surrounding environment
- Cannot afford all-organic and sustainably-sourced foods
It’s safe to say that - though we do the best we can - we aren’t keeping detailed tallies and charts of our lab work in order to determine where we are falling short on the nutrient spectrum.
I’ll get this out of the way first: I've got bad news.
Even in an immaculate, perfect nutritional simulation, external factors make it almost impossible to get every nutrient we need through food. That’s reality: even when we are doing everything right, there are things that are simply out of our control.
So what is keeping us from getting everything we need through food?
First of all, there is an undeniable environmental factor.
If you haven’t yet read my post on hormone disrupting chemicals, bookmark it for a quick read when you’re done with this.
A colorful, well-balanced, ultra-varied diet can only do so much. Unfortunately, even with the most careful, educated planning and consideration, the food on your plate may have some gaps that are beyond your control.
Current farming practices in the United States cause most of our soil used to grow our produce to deplete at a rate of ten times the amount that it can replenish itself. Mainstream farming methods often completely strip soil of its nutritional value, which makes the fields producing our food nutrient-deficient due to overuse and repeat planting. In an attempt to course-correct, conventional farming techniques try to compensate by adding pesticides and fertilizers (aka hormone disruptors) to revitalize soil. Unfortunately, these chemicals can end up sticking around even after they've been thoroughly washed. Not only do these residual pesticides alter nutrients in our food, they are unsafe for you and for the healthy development of your baby.
Organic, sustainable farming methods matter. However, since they are no longer the norm, organic, high quality foods are both less accessible and more expensive. An entirely organic diet can be difficult to achieve, especially on a budget.
Second, it’s extremely challenging to completely avoid processing.
So much of our food - even many “health foods” - are processed into oblivion these days in order to increase shelf life and enhance flavor. Continuing to be diligent when reading nutrition labels is a must, and as always, the fewer, simpler ingredients, the better. However, even trusted manufacturers sometimes get a pass from the FDA due to misleading practices in denoting ingredients, so you can assume many of your favorite foods contain chemicals and compounds on which you are not able to fully educate yourself.
Since food is often either contaminated with hormone disruptors like pesticides or is no longer as nutritionally dense due to common-practice processing, we must fill in the gaps. This is especially important while trying to conceive, pregnant, or breastfeeding.
So how do I do it?
Cheer up! Here is where the good news comes in.
Filling in these gaps isn’t rocket science. The most viable solution to rectifying nutrient deficiencies that cannot be solved through diet alone is to incorporate supplements.
This can be a convoluted topic. Here is where the questions always start to flow:
- What is the difference between synthetic supplements and whole food based supplements?
- Is one better for you/more efficient than the other?
- How do I know which nutrients I should be supplementing?
That’s a lot to think about. Let’s tackle these one at a time.
1. What is the difference between synthetic supplements and whole food based supplements?
Technically, on a molecular level, synthetic nutrients are considered to be almost chemically identical to those found in food. And while there is no contest between real food and synthetic supplements when it comes to getting our nutrients, following the same logic when comparing whole food supplements to their synthetic counterparts isn’t always a sure thing. Form and bioavailability play a part in the equation of efficiency from nutrient to nutrient. Sometimes whole food-based supplements can be the most effective option, but there are many instances where it can actually be the least (and this is coming from a staunch, real-food RD!).
Here are the facts.
2. So is one better for you/more efficient than the other?⠀⠀
The short (and perhaps unexpected) answer:
The term “whole food supplement” or “natural supplement” is used a lot in marketing materials to make consumers think it’s a higher quality supplement, when in reality, due to the above mentioned quantity issue, you may not be getting anything even close to the amount you need to actually make a difference. Generally, a serving of produce will be more nutrient-dense than what can be squeezed into a capsule. This dosage discrepancy is of particular importance for those trying to conceive, those who are pregnant, and those who are breastfeeding, since supplementing additional nutrients that come up short through diet is so important to not only the health of mom, but also of baby.
An important thing to remember is that supplements should include forms of nutrients that are bioavailable. Higher bioavailability means more bang for your buck! If a synthetic supplement is chemically identical to a natural supplement and provides a higher level of bioavailability, there’s no reason to avoid it.⠀
3. How do I know which nutrients I should be supplementing while trying to conceive, pregnant, or breastfeeding?
This is a question I get all of the time, and I promise, I could (and will eventually) write a full separate blog post about this!
Know that if you’re even thinking about getting down to the nitty gritty of your nutrient deficiencies through lab work, you’re already way ahead of the game. That said, it's not standard practice for primary care physicians to run such detailed lab work for women trying to conceive without a glaring issue at hand, so you are likely going to have to request these labs from your physician yourself.
For quick reference, here are the labs that I run in my private practice, Boston Functional Nutrition, for my clients who are trying to conceive. Simply being aware of this data helps you get ahead of any potential issues, making conceiving easier and your pregnancy healthier.
+Complete Blood Count (CBC) + Ferritin + Iron and Total Iron Binding Capacity (TIBC) + C-reactive Protein (CRP)
These values help get a baseline understanding of your iron status and if any form of anemia may be present. You do not want to go into pregnancy anemic, trust me! Similarly, you don't want to take an iron supplement right out of the gate if you don't need it, as too much iron can cause its own set of issues (one of them being constipation, which we are NOT looking to experience ever, but especially while pregnant!).
+Vitamin D, 25-Hydroxy (Vitamin D 25-OH)
Please make a note here that you are not simply requesting "vitamin D". Many providers mistakenly order Vitamin D-1, 25, which is not the correct way to accurately assess vitamin D status. In fact, that number will look quite high, especially if you are already supplementing with vitamin D, but it is not reflective of your actual vitamin D status, so be sure the correct test is ordered. I’ve had clients come to me from other providers who have stopped taking vitamin D out of fear of toxicity. This is because their former provider ordered the wrong test. It would be a simple mistake if the stakes weren’t so high: these clients became severely deficient during pregnancy and we had to work quickly to reverse the issue in order to make sure it didn’t have a negative effect on their baby.
+Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH) and ideally, a full thyroid panel (TSH, T4, T3 and thyroid antibodies)
One of the top reasons why people struggle with infertility and pregnancy loss is due to undiagnosed or undertreated thyroid conditions. Understanding your thyroid health prior to pregnancy is vital. If anything comes back out of the ordinary, it might be worth it to book an appointment with an endocrinologist.
Our final call
Nutrients are best consumed through whole, unprocessed food, but due to a handful of unavoidable issues with the way our food is grown/raised and sourced, it is necessary to supplement while trying to conceive, pregnant, or breastfeeding in order to avoid nutrient deficiency and experience a healthy pregnancy. When it comes to the question of synthetic vs. natural supplements, the most important factors to focus on are less about the supplement’s origin and more about the supplements dosage and bioavailability. As long as you are getting enough of the nutrients you need, you’re going to be in good shape!
The vitamins and minerals in Full Circle Prenatal are an expertly formulated combination of sources of nutrients that are more bioavailable to ensure you are getting the nutrients you need before, during, and after pregnancy. Take a look at some of our other blog posts to learn more about individual nutrients, why we use them, and why we use them in the forms and quantities we do. More knowledge is always at your fingertips with Full Circle Prenatal.
- Cooperman, Todd, M.D. "Is it better to get vitamins from foods or supplements, and are natural vitamins better than synthetic vitamins?" ConsumerLab. April 12. 2019. Web. 24 Mar. 2021. https://www.consumerlab.com/answers/is-it-better-to-get-vitamins-from-foods-or-supplements/natural-vs-synthetic-vitamin/.
- Barmmer, Ayla, MS, RD, LDN. "4 common hormone disrupting chemicals (& how to avoid them)". Full Circle Prenatal Blog. 7 Jan. 2021. Accessed 24 Mar. 2021. https://fullcircleprenatal.com/blogs/blog/how-to-avoid-the-most-common-hormone-disrupting-chemicals.
- "Food Labeling Secrets You Need to Know to Stay Healthy". Sentient Media. 18 Dec. 2018. Accessed 24 Mar. 2021. https://sentientmedia.org/food-labeling/.
- Brown, Mary Jane, PhD, RD. "Synthetic vs. Natural Nutrients: Does it Matter?" Heathline. 17 Aug. 2016. Accessed 24 Mar. 2021. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/synthetic-vs-natural-nutrients#TOC_TITLE_HDR_6.
- "Human plasma and tissue alpha-tocopherol concentrations in response to supplementation with deuterated natural and synthetic vitamin E". National Center for Biotechnology Information. Accessed 24 Mar. 2021. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9537614/.
- "Teratogenicity of high vitamin A intake". National Center for Biotechnology Information. Accessed 24 Mar. 2021. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/7477116/.
- Barmmer, Ayla, MS, RD, LDN. "B Vitamins: Where Quality and Quantity Collide". Full Circle Prenatal Blog. 12 Mar. 2021. Accessed 24 Mar. 2021. https://fullcircleprenatal.com/blogs/blog/b-vitamins-where-quality-and-quantity-collide.