Between Food and Supplements: A Story of Thriving in Today’s Nutritional Environment

all-natural and organic mix of a wide variety of supplements on countertop

This post is by Tony Federico, Natural Force’s VP of Marketing. He likes to tell stories and occasionally goes off on tangents, but we think you’ll enjoy reading!

Whether it’s on TV, the radio, or online, it’s hard to miss all the messages encouraging us to supplement our diets with megadoses of vitamins and minerals.

For today’s consumer, it’s hard to imagine that this hasn’t always been the case, but it wasn’t until the mid 20th century that vitamin and mineral supplements first began to appear on store shelves. Prior to this time, whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, and animal products were the only reliable sources of nutrients and people who didn’t have access to these foods were at risk for vitamin deficiency diseases.

Scientific advances in chemical manufacturing, in addition to a growing understanding of what vitamins were and how they impacted health, kick started the vitamin and mineral supplement industry and by 2012, annual sales topped 13 billion dollars.

If asked, most people would say that they take vitamin and mineral supplements to ward off disease or improve their health. Surprisingly, the results of scientific studies in favor of vitamin and mineral supplementation are mixed at best and in some cases there is evidence of increased risk for disease.

Ancient Vitamins and Minerals

To be sure, we need vitamins. When the first living things began to coalesce in the primordial soup, vitamins were there to help.

These single-celled organism produced vitamins such as B1 (thiamine) to help facilitate chemical processes within the cell, and this relationship between life forms and essential vitamins has continued unabated as the evolution of larger and more complex forms of life progressed.

The first single-cell organisms produced all the vitamins that they needed, but then a new dynamic was introduced to the mix. Cells began to eat (or perhaps more accurately “engulf”) other cells. By consuming other living things that contain vitamins, in essence “stealing” the vitamins made by another, the need to produce vitamins was diminished.

This flow of vitamins, from one organism to another, is known as “vitamin traffic”. Several billion years later, the situation hasn’t changed much as it is through vitamin traffic that we humans still satisfy much of our own vitamin requirements.

Our bodies do possess the capacity to produce certain nutrients. For example, Vitamin D is generated in the skin when we are exposed to sunlight. But, we have lost the ability to make others.

A mutation in a gene known as GULO renders us incapable of making our own supply of Vitamin C, a fact that was made painfully clear to ancient soldiers and mariners who suffered from scurvy on long sea and land voyages where fresh produce was scarce. Scurvy, a vitamin C deficiency disease, causes connective tissues to break down, eventually leading to bleeding gums, loose teeth, painful swollen joints, and eventually death.

Intuitively, it seems like losing the ability to produce an essential vitamin like Vitamin C would have caused us problems well before we set sail on the high seas, but scientists believe that this can be explained by taking a look at our evolutionary history.

Why We Need Certain Nutrients

They theorize that our version of GULO broke down at a time when our early ancestors were consuming a diet rich in Vitamin C-containing foods such as fruits and green leafy vegetables.

With such an abundant dietary intake, we would have had no need for endogenous (self-produced) vitamin C. This would have allowed the mutated form of the GULO gene to be passed along, from generation to generation, eventually becoming ubiquitous within the original human population, without any harm.

Our deficiency only became evident when we abandoned our ancestral diet for one based on novel food sources, such as refined grains, that lacked vitamin C.

Dietary minerals are required for the same reason that essential vitamins are. We simply can’t make them. A failure to consume adequate amounts of calcium, for example, can lead to weak, brittle bones (osteopenia and osteoporosis), and eventually convulsions, abnormal heart rhythms, and death. Other trace minerals such as copper, chromium, zinc, and sodium (aka salt) are also needed, albeit in small amounts, to sustain life.

As in the case of vitamin C, our ancestral diets provided sufficient quantities of these trace minerals, but our increased dependence on intensive farming practices has depleted soil mineral content and thus the mineral content in our foods. With all this in mind, it would seem like supplementing with vitamins and minerals is a good thing, but problems arise when we start to think that “if a little is good, a lot must be better.”

The Problem With Over-Supplementation

The first advocate of mega-dosing of isolated vitamins was Nobel Prize winning chemist Linus Pauling. Pauling’s books, “Vitamin C and the Common Cold” and “Cancer and Vitamin C”, popularized the notion that large amounts of supplemental vitamins could be cure-alls for a variety of ailments. But despite his enthusiastic advocacy, and a public willing to embrace his message, some researchers were not convinced.

Arthur C. Robinson Ph.D., a former student and colleague of Pauling, disputed Pauling’s claim that “75% of cancer can be prevented and cured by vitamin C supplementation alone” and backed up his position with rodent studies that showed that cancer growth was accelerated by large amounts of Vitamin C. By this time, however, Pauling had already successfully lobbied for reduced FDA control over dietary supplements and the supplement industry “cat” was out of the proverbial bag.

Consumers are highly defensive of their right to take dietary supplements, but that doesn’t mean these substances are without risk. Randomized trials of beta-carotene, Vitamin E, and even resveratrol (the highly-touted antioxidant found in red wine) supplementation have shown similar results to Robinson’s Vitamin C studies, i.e. they can actually increase mortality risk and adversely impact health.

Interestingly, however, many of the same studies show that increased fruit and vegetable consumption is inversely related to mortality risk and positively correlated to good health.

The Fruit And Veggie Solution

On paper, it would seem like eating a Vitamin-C-containing lemon or lime would have the same effects of taking a tablet of Vitamin C, or that drinking a glass of resveratrol- rich red wine would have the same effect of a pill containing resveratrol, but this is not at all what the studies show.

While the reasons for this are not yet understood, there is some evidence to support speculation. It is known that whole foods contain a myriad of compounds, rather than a single isolated one, and some of these compounds may actually diminish the impact of the primary nutrient. In other words, the naturally occurring compounds in a lemon or lime may actually buffer the action of Vitamin C, effectively reducing its action and making it not only safe, but beneficial to health.

Similar processes are likely at work when you eat a carrot instead of taking an isolated dose of beta-carotene or drink a glass of wine instead of ingesting pure resveratrol.

At the end of all this seemingly conflicting and confusing information, one thing remains clear: our human ancestors evolved in an environment that supplied a variety of vitamins and minerals and this environment irrevocably shaped our biology.

Our best bet at being healthy today is to recreate the environment of the past by consuming a variety of whole foods, fruits, vegetables, and animal products rich in all the nutrients we need, as well as the nutrients that make other nutrients safe.

While targeted supplementation of specific vitamins and minerals may be necessary to ward of deficiency diseases like scurvy, megadoses of those same nutrients actually stimulate the development of diseases like cancer.

Supplement manufacturers and marketers understandably have a vested interest in showing their products in a positive light, but consumers need to take a similarly vested interest in themselves. Just because something can be purchased at the store and without a doctor’s prescription doesn’t mean that it is innocuous.

The choice to supplement is one that today’s consumers possess, but it is a choice that should be undertaken with awareness, information, and respect for these powerful compounds.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally posted March 2015 and has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

Also published on Medium.