Many people don’t get enough nutrients from the diet alone. Currently, over half of the Indian population takes synthetic nutrients like multivitamins. However, there has been much debate over whether synthetic nutrients provide the same benefits as natural nutrients. Some sources even suggest that synthetic nutrients may be dangerous. This article takes an objective look at the science on synthetic and natural nutrients.
What Are Synthetic and Natural Nutrients?
- Natural nutrients: These are obtained from whole food sources in the diet.
- Synthetic nutrients: Also referred to as isolated nutrients, these are usually made artificially, in an industrial process.
Synthetic nutrients do not include “whole food supplements,” which are made from concentrated, dehydrated whole foods. The majority of supplements available on the market today are made artificially. These include vitamins, antioxidants, minerals and amino acids, among others. They can be taken in pill, capsule, tablet, powder or liquid form, and are made to mimic the way natural nutrients act in our bodies.
To figure out if your supplement is synthetic or natural, check the label. Natural supplements usually list food sources or are labelled as 100% plant or animal-based. Supplements that list nutrients individually, such as vitamin C, or use chemical names like ascorbic acid, are almost certainly synthetic.
Synthetic nutrients are dietary supplements made artificially in a laboratory setting or industrial process. Natural nutrients are those found in whole foods.
The accepted view is that synthetic nutrients are almost chemically identical to those found in food. However, the production process of synthetic nutrients is very different to the way plants and animals create them. So despite having a similar structure, your body may react differently to synthetic nutrients.
Additionally, it’s unclear how well synthetic nutrients are absorbed and used in the body. Some may be more easily absorbed, not others. This is because when you eat real food, you’re not consuming single nutrients, but rather a whole range of vitamins, minerals, co-factors and enzymes that allow for optimal use by the body.
Without these additional compounds, synthetic nutrients are unlikely to be used by the body in the same way as their natural counterparts.
For example, studies show that natural vitamin E is absorbed twice as efficiently as synthetic vitamin E.
It is unclear how well synthetic nutrients are absorbed and used in the body. Your body will use nutrients best when taken in whole food form, with a wide variety of food compounds.
Natural whole foods may help manage and prevent heart disease, diabetes, cancer and early death. These benefits have been linked to the wide range of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber and fatty acids found in whole foods.
Fruits and Vegetables
Fruits and vegetables provide us with fiber, vitamins, minerals and plant compounds, which are thought to be responsible for many health benefits. Observational studies show that higher fruit and vegetable intake is linked to a lower risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, arthritis and some brain disorders. Increased fruit intake is also linked to lower blood pressure, reduced oxidative stress and improved blood sugar control. One review found that for each daily portion of fruit or vegetables consumed, the risk of heart disease decreased by 4–7%.
Scientists believe that the high levels of omega-3 fatty acids in oily fish are responsible for improved heart health. Many large observational studies have shown that people who eat fish regularly have a lower risk of heart attacks, strokes and death from heart disease. One study of more than 40,000 males aged 40–75 found that those who regularly ate one or more servings of fish per week had a 15% lower risk of heart disease.
Beans and Legumes
Experts believe that the high soluble fiber content and the wide range of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants in beans and legumes may help reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers. Eating one serving of legumes like beans, peas and chickpeas each day has been linked to 5% lower LDL cholesterol levels and a 5-6% lower risk of heart disease.
Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds are high in antioxidants, minerals and healthy fats. They have been associated with a reduced risk of early death, heart disease and diabetes. One review found that 4 weekly servings of nuts was linked to a 28% lower risk of heart disease, and 22% lower risk of diabetes.
Whole grains contain many valuable nutrients, including fiber, B vitamins and minerals such as iron, magnesium and selenium. Whole grain consumption has also been associated with protection against cancer, heart disease, diabetes and obesity.
Evidence supports the idea that natural nutrients found in whole foods can prevent against a wide range of chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer and premature death.