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Why do we absorb vitamins better from whole foods than from pills?

Why do we absorb vitamins better from whole foods than from pills?



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We can't rely on pills to provide us our nutrients because we don't absorb the nutrients from the pills as effectively. Presumably this is because pills are lacking components that are required for certain reactions to take place.

Why can't we just create a pill that does have all the necessary components?


Why can't we just create a pill that does have all the necessary components?

I'm assuming you mean micronutrients (vitamins & minerals). A day's worth of macronutrients (energy and building-block providing chemicals - proteins, fats, sugars) are already very abundant and dense - a pill containing a day's worth would be the size of an egg.

Otherwise, we do. There are vitamin/mineral pills which have a very high absorbancy rate (usually those chelated or chemically bonded to various amino acids [words ending in -nate on the label]).

The big problem is that while the vitamins and minerals may satisfy your bare biochemical needs, that is all they do. They will not satisfy a hunger instinct (proteins and fats do that), and there are untold millions of compounds in the untold thousands of plants and products humans can pick up from the market. These compounds usually do not do much, but some are beneficial to our health.

So while multivitamins exist which provide you with a very efficient method of absorbing most of your vitamins and minerals, it's always recommended to get them directly from food since food will provide macronutrients (thus satisfying your hunger), the micronutrients you're curious about, and many potential beneficial compounds which are not necessary.

If you are still interested, Soylent Shakes are an attempt to provide all the micro- and macronutrients the body needs in an easier-to-consume form without all the messy cooking or multivitamin pills. Keep in mind the long-term effects of sticking to such a diet are more or less unknown, but it's as close as we can likely get to an "all-in-one" meal.


Nutrition vs Supplement Label: Which is Better?

GEM is more than your average vitamin. What sets GEM apart from the rest of the supplement aisle? A lot of things – convenience, price, sustainability. But above all else, we’re made with clean and sustainable real food ingredients.

As it turns out good health isn’t as simple as taking a pill for each thing that ails you. You’re much better off consuming whole foods whose nutrients can work synergistically to do what the average, synthetically-made supplement can’t.

Why do our bodies absorb nutrients from real foods so much better than vitamins and supplements? A concept known as “food synergy” might hold the key. According to scientists, nutrients from whole foods are not only better, but they also work better together. That means that when we eat the right combination of whole foods, the health benefits we receive go beyond any ordinary vitamin or supplement!

GEM’s unique approach to supplements is based on sourcing the most powerful, real food ingredients (think: dates, pumpkin seeds, mushrooms, and algae) and information that work together, combining nature and science’s finest sources and forces, to create new solutions for increasingly complex health problems.

Since only real food ingredients are used in our bites, GEM is regulated by the FDA as just that —food! Not only does this mean that GEM is produced differently (in a facility with other organic food products and not in a lab of pills and capsules), but we’re regulated and labeled differently, too.

Let’s dive into the logistics behind what this means and why a nutrition fact label is better than a supplement label:

1. Nutrition Labels Do Not Have Toxic Ingredients
The Food and Drug Administration maintains a list of food ingredients tested and determined as “generally regarded as safe” (GRAS, for short). Only products that use all GRAS ingredients can have nutritional fact labels. For example, most energy drinks on the market are labeled as dietary supplements because they contain ingredients that are not considered “GRAS”. So, those energy drink companies aren’t required to list ingredients on the packaging and can be sold with dangerous levels of caffeine and toxins.

2. Nutrition Labels Do Not Have Hidden Additives
A nutritional fact panel or label requires all ingredients to be listed on the label by order of volume on the product. Supplement panels are able to list their ingredients as part of a “proprietary blend,” which means the specific amount of each individual ingredient in the “blend” does not have to be listed, only the total of the blend itself. So as a consumer, you have no idea if the product has more positive or negative ingredients. Worse, in each of these “proprietary blends,” companies can conceal ingredients and add fillers or toxic binders.

Here’s an example of a label that lists the active ingredients as a “Premium Proprietary Blend,” meaning you won’t know what’s in each soft gel, the fillers or binders that are added, or how much.

Inherently by design, consumers don't have full transparency into what they are ingesting. Unless a company provides a full label disclosure, we are left in the dark as to what we are putting into our bodies.

Even when a company doesn't have a "proprietary blend" and lists the full ingredients, there could still be binders and fillers added that they aren’t required to disclose to you.

3. Nutrition Labels Do Not Have Misleading Claims
Supplement fact panels are able to make unsubstantiated claims that are not pre-approved by the FDA.

There are three types of claims supplements can make:

  1. Functional Claims: Any claim describing the role of a nutrient or ingredient that will affect or maintain the day-to-day function of the human body. Example: Calcium builds strong bones.
  2. General Well-Being Claims: Claims about a nutrient leading to general well-being after consumption. Example: Contributes to good health.
  3. Nutrient Deficiency Claims: Claims that outline a benefit to the product related to a nutrient deficiency or disease. Example: Vitamin C prevents sickness.

Despite any kind of egregious or life-enhancing claims a supplement might make on the front of the label, they then often include a disclaimer on the back that reads: “These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.”

So with a label with a front and back that contradicts itself, what’s the answer to your wellness needs? GEM.

Made only from plant-based, nutrient-dense ingredients, GEM offers your daily nutritional insurance in the form your body knows best: real food.

Looking to learn more about what’s inside our bites? Click here.

This article is based on scientific research and/or other scientific articles and contains trusted sources.

Our goal at GEM is to give readers up-to-date and objective information on health-related topics. GEM content is written by experienced health and lifestyle contributors and articles undergo an extensive review process.

All references are hyperlinked at the end of the article to take readers directly to the source.


Is it better to get vitamins from foods or supplements, and are natural vitamins better than synthetic vitamins?

It is generally best to get your vitamins (as well as minerals) naturally from foods or, in the case of vitamin D, controlled sun exposure.

For example, multiple studies have shown that calcium from foods is safer than from supplements. Older women who get high amounts of calcium from supplements seem to have a higher risk of kidney stones, strokes, and even a greater risk of dying over periods of time.

A small increased risk of death has also been seen in studies of people taking supplements containing vitamin A and beta-carotene compared to those who don't.

An analysis of data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), among approximately 30,000 adults in the U.S., found that adequate daily intakes of vitamins A and K, magnesium, zinc, and copper from foods &mdash but not from supplements -- were associated with reduced risk of dying over a period of time. The study found that no vitamin or mineral supplement (including multivitamins) was associated with a decreased risk of death from cardiovascular disease or any cause after adjusting for factors such as age, gender, eating habits and lifestyle (Chen, Ann Intern Med 2019).

Exceptions to the "foods are better" rule are two B vitamins. Ten to thirty percent of older people don't properly digest and absorb natural vitamin B-12 from foods, so it is recommended to get B-12 from a supplement if you are over age 50. Folic acid (vitamin B-9) from supplements and fortified foods is absorbed better -- about 70% better -- than folate from regular foods such as spinach. Consequently, pregnant woman are advised to get folic acid from a supplement (or fortified food) as well as regular foods. Also keep in mind that if you get your iron from plant foods, it is absorbed only half as well as iron from meat -- although eating your spinach (or iron supplement) with a source of vitamin C will boost the absorption of its iron.

Using supplements made from whole foods won't necessarily give you more vitamins (in fact, they typically contain more modest amounts of vitamins than other dietary supplements), but you will get other plant compounds which could be of potential benefit (as well as some grams of fiber if you are consuming, for example, spoonfuls of a whole food powder as opposed to a pill). Paying a premium price for this, however, may not be worthwhile and ConsumerLab.com has found lead contamination in some whole food and "greens" products.

Regarding natural vs. synthetic forms of vitamins in dietary supplements, sometimes natural is better, sometimes synthetic is better, and sometimes it doesn't matter. Keep in mind that all can help prevent or treat deficiencies and other conditions, and nearly all are known to be harmful at too high a dose.

Natural may be better in the case of vitamin E. At low doses, either natural (d-alpha-tocopherol) or synthetic (dl-alpha-tocopherol) can be fine, although you need more IUs of synthetic (1.6 IU) to get the same amount of active vitamin E as from 1 IU of natural vitamin E. There is also a greater risk of bleeding problems with synthetic vitamin E at high doses, so that the upper limit for vitamin E for adults is 1,100 IU of synthetic vitamin E, but 1,500 IU of natural vitamin E. Naturally, vitamin E also contains other tocopherols and tocotrienols, which may have benefit. However, ConsumerLab.com tests show that not all "natural" vitamin E products contain these additional natural compounds.

Natural may also be better with vitamin K. A form of vitamin K-2, known as MK-7, naturally derived from fermented soy beans and used in supplements is better at raising vitamin K levels than supplements with synthetic K-1 or synthetic K-2, known as MK-4.

Natural or synthetic sources are both fine for getting vitamin C. Rose hips, acerola, camu camu, and synthetically produced vitamin C all provide the same compound -- ascorbic acid, although be aware that the concentration of vitamin C in natural ingredients may be very low, e.g., 20 mg of rose hips powder may only provide 4 mg of vitamin C. The inclusion of citrus bioflavonoids (naturally present or added) may improve absorption.

Sometimes synthetic forms of vitamins offer advantages over natural forms. A synthetic form of niacin (vitamin B-3) called inositol hexanicotinate, for example, causes less flushing of the skin than niacin.

Although not a vitamin, lycopene supplementation may be helpful in reducing the risk of certain cancers and, in one study, was associated with reduced mortality, particularly from cancer. Consumption of tomatoes, which is rich in lycopene, has also been associated with a reduced risk of certain cancers and death from cancer.


Secret Shopper: Are liquid vitamins more efficient than pills?

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NFM Secret Shopper: I’ve heard that liquid vitamins are more bioavailable than pills. Is this true, and should I be looking only for a liquid multi?

Store: Yes, that is true. Your body will absorb the vitamins and minerals faster because they are in liquid form. We don’t have any in stock right now, but you could try a whole-food multivitamin instead. They are also more bioavailable.

NFM: Really? Why is that?

Store: Because they come from whole fruits and vegetables instead of being synthetic, so your body knows what to do with them.

How did this retailer do?

Our expert educator: Holly Lucille, N.D., R.D.N., owner of The Body Well in West Hollywood, California

Bottom line, the retailer is wrong about liquid vitamins being more bioavailable than solid vitamins. They are not. Better bioavailability has been a good marketing pitch for liquid vitamins, but there is no research out there to substantiate it.

Honestly, the body reduces everything, except fiber, down to liquid before converting it to stool. So, if you ingest a properly disintegrating tablet or capsule, the vitamins will become suspended in liquid for absorption into the small intestines.

The only caveat is it is important to buy vitamins from companies that do disintegration and dissolution testing on every product. A quality manufacturer will do this, and retailers and consumers can always call companies directly to ask about these tests.

The retailer’s second statement—that vitamins from whole foods are more bioavailable because the body “knows what to do with them”—is also incorrect.

Do you know how much crap Americans eat that are not whole foods and yet our bodies know exactly what to do with them? Our bodies have incredible digestive power to handle the many different things we consume. Whole-food vitamins are not necessarily any better than other types in terms of absorption.


Vitamin C helps your body absorb iron, and it performs this task equally well whether you get it from food sources or synthetic vitamins. However, because citrus fruits, berries, tomatoes, broccoli, spinach and red and green peppers are all rich in vitamin C, you will get all you need if you include some of these foods in your diet. If you eat a great deal of these foods and take synthetic supplements, too, you run the risk of diarrhea and nausea.

Vitamin D is difficult to get sufficient quantities of through food sources. Sunlight is the only natural source of this vitamin, though dairy products are usually fortified with it. You can supplement with synthetic vitamins in doses up to 1,000 IU daily without harm, but don't go higher than that because it can be dangerous in high levels.


What the Study Found

The researchers analyzed National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) data on supplements such as multivitamins, vitamin C, and calcium—which the study participants took—along with info on the foods they ate. Taking supplements, the study authors found, didn’t translate to a lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease, cancer, or any cause for that matter. Getting adequate amounts of vitamin K and magnesium from food, however, reduced the risk of dying overall by more than 20 percent. And those whose diet had enough of vitamins A and K, copper, and zinc cut the risk of death from cardiovascular disease by half.

When the researchers analyzed the data, they found that in supplement takers, nutrients from the foods they ate were protective, but nutrients from the supplements were not. In fact, they didn’t need supplements at all to meet their daily requirements for vitamins and minerals.

The study also highlighted the negative effects of overuse of supplements: For example, getting 1,000 mg per day of calcium in pill form was linked to a 62 percent increased risk of cancer. However, when people got that much calcium from food, it didn’t increase cancer risk, Zhang says.

Stephen Fortmann, M.D., senior director of science programs at the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research, who worked on a systematic review of supplements for the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force in 2013, says the results from this new study are in line with the findings from that report. “There’s not a lot of evidence that these supplements do any good.”


Medication Shells

Pharmaceutical companies make many different types of medication coatings from extended-release coatings to cellulose capsules. In most cases, the body is absorbing the medications as it should and expelling the shell of the medication.  

Long-acting or extended-release capsules have a special outer coating designed to be absorbed slowly. While the medication may be released, the shell may remain intact and be refilled with liquids from your intestinal tract.

It's similar to the digestion of corn kernels—your body digests the inner grain of corn, but the tough, fibrous husk is expelled. The liquids and waste from your body refill the corn husk—and likewise some medication "husks"—making them appear full and unabsorbed.  

There is a simple way to determine if this is the case. If the medications are working or doing what they are prescribed to do, then you are most likely just seeing the empty capsule in your stool.  

For instance, if you are taking medications for diabetes and your blood sugar remains within a normal range, there is a good chance the medications are getting absorbed properly.

When in doubt, talk to your doctor about your concerns. They can tell you if this is fairly normal or expected with the specific medication you are taking or prescribe an alternate for you.


When you're looking to supplement your diet, both organic and synthetic vitamins are good choices. Synthetic vitamins, however, tend to be less expensive than the organic kind. Also, while you can find once-a-day organic vitamins, many natural vitamins may require that you take several pills a day to get all the nutrients you need. But you may find that you tolerate the vitamin supplement better when it's taken in smaller doses throughout the day as opposed to one single dose.

No matter which type of vitamin you choose, do not take one that contains high doses of any nutrients. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, taking mega-doses of vitamins and minerals may harm your health and may increase your risk of heart disease. There are brands of both organic and synthetic vitamins that contain mega-doses. Instead, look for ones that contain 100 percent of the daily value for most of the nutrients.


Understanding vitamins and minerals

Vitamins and minerals are nutrients that our body needs in small amounts. They are essential to many body functions including:

  • growth
  • development
  • nerve function
  • blood clotting
  • immune function
  • eyesight

The amounts we need depend on a range of factors including our:

  • age
  • gender
  • diet choices
  • medical conditions
  • how active we are
  • genetics
  • level of exposure to sunlight and other environmental exposures like pollutants

We get the majority of our vitamins and minerals through the foods and drinks we consume every day. For most healthy individuals, a balanced healthy diet based on the five food groups can adequately provide all vitamin and mineral needs meaning you don’t need to take supplements. However, if you are restrictive on certain food groups, or eliminate them entirely, some supplementation could be needed. This is certainly the case for vegans who require vitamin B12 supplementation in the absence of animal products in their diets.

Supplements can not replace a healthy diet and health benefits are harder to achieve if a consistently poor diet with supplementation is chosen. It’s important to understand that having high doses of some supplements can increase the risk of interactions with medications and lead to detrimental health consequences.

Do you need to take supplements?

For the average person, if you follow the Australians Dietary Guidelines, you should be able to get all the vitamins and minerals you need from the food you eat. If you have an existing health condition or are highly active, you may need to be even more vigilant on your food choices to ensure you get enough of the nutrients you need. If you can’t eat enough food to provide these, supplementation could be a complimentary solution to meeting your needs. If this sounds like you, consult an Accredited Practicing Dietitian or your GP to advise on what supplements you may need. The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend a diet that is high in vegetables, fruit, and wholegrains with smaller but regular amounts of dairy products (mostly reduced fat) and lean meat or alternatives (like tofu, beans and other vegetable proteins). They also recommend limiting the amounts of added salt, sugar, alcohol and saturated fats in your diet.

  • pregnant women who need to take folic acid or other supplements as advised by their doctor
  • vegans who may need to take B12, iron or omega fatty acid supplements
  • people with some medical conditions
  • highly active people or athletes

You can use the CSIRO diet score online tool to see how balanced your diet is and where you may need to make some improvements to better meet your nutrient needs.

What foods contain vitamins and minerals?

Vitamins and minerals are found in highest quantities within foods that come from the five food groups. Some examples include:

  • Calcium – Dairy - milk, cheese, yoghurt plus tofu, Asian green vegetables, salmon (if consumed with the bones e.g. tinned)
  • Iron – Offal like liver and from animal flesh like red meat, pork and to a lesser extend in chicken, salmon and tinned tuna
  • Zinc – Crustaceans like oysters other seafood, red meat and chicken and to a lesser extent from brown rice, nuts and legumes (e.g. red kidney beans, chickpeas and lentils)
  • Folate – Plant based sources like beans, lentils, beetroot, green leafy vegetables, oranges and wholegrains like seeded breads and breakfast cereals and seeds

You can find out where other vitamins and minerals are found at Healthdirect Australia.

If your diet is unhealthy, can you take supplements instead?

Supplements can never replace a healthy diet. Although it might be tempting to think you can take a pill instead of eating your serves of fruits and vegetables each day, that’s not the case. If you’re not eating enough vegetables, supplements can help boost your stores and meet your daily needs. However, you’ll miss out on other components that occur naturally in wholefoods and we don’t understand the role of all of these components yet.

When we get our vitamins and minerals from whole foods, we’re able to absorb them more effectively. For example, our bodies absorb calcium more efficiently when it’s in the presence of vitamin D. Some research has also shown a better absorption when combined with lactose (the naturally occurring sugar found in dairy milk).

When we eat our five serves of vegetables each day, we’re also consuming a lot of fibres, both soluble and insoluble. Different types of fibre have many benefits including reducing our cholesterol sand helping to manage our blood sugar levels. Some fibres have a prebiotic function which means that it helps to feed our gut microbiomes. Our gut microbiomes are made up of many microorganisms that help to digest and synthesise nutrients. These microorganisms also play a role in your metabolism, body weight, immune regulation and disease prevention. Our gut microbiomes also need vitamins and minerals to thrive which is why eating whole foods is a better way to get both at the same time.

Are supplements safe?

Taking too many supplements can be toxic for our bodies and also interfere with other medications we may be taking.

For example if you take over 1.5mg of Vitamin A day over many years, it can make your bones more likely to fracture. If you’re pregnant, it can also be harmful for your baby. Vitamin A is a fat soluble vitamin that accumulates in our fat cells over time. If we end up storing too much, that’s when toxicity occurs. Rapid weight loss in people who have high vitamin A stores in their fat cells can cause a surge in blood vitamin A levels that can cause immediate and fatal health consequences.

According to the National Health Service in the UK, taking too much Vitamin B3 can result in skin flushes or even liver damage. It’s important to not go over the daily recommended intake for each nutrient and to remember that you may already be absorbing a certain amount from your diet that adequately meets your needs.

Who regulates the sale of vitamins and minerals in Australia?

The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) regulates the sale of vitamins and minerals in Australia. This government department ensures that:

  • all products only contain high quality and safe ingredients
  • all claims about the product are supported with research
  • the product only claims to treat minor health problems and not serious or life-threatening illnesses

All information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only. The information provided should not be relied upon as medical advice and does not supersede or replace a consultation with a suitably qualified health care professional.


Why do we absorb vitamins better from whole foods than from pills? - Biology

Why is Nutritional Absorption a Concern?

by Dr. Marc Grossman and Jeannette Manning

Presently, we are witnessing new breakthroughs in vision loss prevention. The National Institute of Health (NIH) is studying 4,600 people to follow the effects of nutritional supplementation on cataracts, macular degeneration and glaucoma. The human eye requires more nutrition to maintain healthy tissue and function than any other organ in the body! The study is identifying "which" supplements are most important and "how" these nutrients should be taken.

Your ability to absorb nutrients from the food you eat and the supplements you take may decrease between the ages of 40 to 60 years as much as 70-90%! Research on senior absorption characteristics indicates that reduced levels of digestive enzymes in your mouth, pancreas and intestines, coupled with reduced hydrochloric acid production in your stomach are culprits contributing to this condition.

When you can't completely digest your food or nutritional supplements, your body can't absorb the vitamins they contain. Vitamins are "locked up" and your body's digestive system uses enzymes and hydrochloric acid (HCI) as keys to release them for absorption into the bloodstream.

Whole raw foods come naturally packaged with their own digestive enzymes but are destroyed by cooking. Digestive enzyme supplements derived from plants are helpful replacements and begin their work in the upper stomach. Amylase for carbohydrate digestion, protease for protein digestion, lipase for fat digestion and cellulase for cellulose (fiber) breakdown are all available in supplement formulas. Animal enzymes such as pancreatin and pepsin are also available and help in the digestion of food once it has reached the lower stomach and the intestinal tract.

Stomach acid is responsible for the activation of the specific enzymes needed for digestion as nutrients travels into the small intestine and colon. Low levels of stomach acid may allow undigested nutrients to travel farther along the digestive tract than the optimal distance for efficient absorption. In older people, this may contribute to lowered levels of vitamins B2, B6, and B12, as well as decreased absorption of zinc from vegetables.

As you pass your 50th birthday, you are likely to produce less stomach acid than you did at age 25. According to estimates, between 24 and 37 percent of adults aged 60 to 80 years suffer from a lack of digestive acid also known as atrophic gastritis. Many people over 50 will benefit from taking HCI with meals. The acid in your stomach is a key player in the thorough breakdown of food. Those who don't have enough stomach acid often can't digest fiber rich food, whole foods or vitamin pills, and end up turning to highly processed foods for energy. Vitamin and mineral deficiencies often already exist because of poor food choices and poor digestion compounds the problem.

Often times we know the therapeutic dosage for a specific condition, but we do not know how much of the prescribed nutrient is absorbed into the bloodstream via the gastrointestinal system when taken orally by tablet, capsule or gel cap. We do know that after age 40 and continuing on as we age, our gastrointestinal absorption rate reduces significantly. (1-4) This problem becomes even more serious when combined with health conditions or digestive disorders that further reduce absorption such as ulcers, diverticulitis, acid reflux, dysbiosis, etc.

Again, it’s not how much you take but how much your body tissues absorb that is important. With a higher level of absorption, more nutrients reach their intended destination thereby requiring a lower dosage intake. More nutrients in a pill or capsule is not necessarily better. What is important is how we can best insure the uptake of recommended "therapeutic dosages".

One way around this problem is to take nutritional supplements using the most efficient delivery system available. The most important

nutrients should be taken in the form of sprays when available. Spraying inside the mouth (intraoral) or under the tongue (sublingual) has the best absorption rate.

"Liquids, aside from offering the obvious benefit of being easy to swallow, have another very important trait. According to the Physicians Desk Reference,

Liquid is absorbed at a 98% rate , versus

Only 10 – 20% in hard capsules or tablet forms .

This very important distinction is extraordinarily important. It is not uncommon to have [hard] capsules pass right through the body in a way that the product name is still visible after the pill has left the body completely. This does not happen with liquids, as they are absorbed completely and are not wasted."

' 100 mg consumed in tablet form translates to a minute stabilized 8.3 mg or 8.3% concentrated in the blood .'

This is simply not the case with liquids! "


" Pills and capsules may cost less, but in reality you get far less absorption for your money . No wonder they cost less!

Liquids are fast--you do not even have to wait for them to dissolve. They start working as soon as you swallow and