How do I know if a food supplement is good or not?

There are a number of different food supplements on the market, and there are new ones added every minute. It is, unfortunately, not possible to judge the quality from the label or the marketing material only. They might look incredibly attractive and well made, but that won't tell you anything about what actually is in the jar. You have to read the fine print and evaluate every ingredient, investigate the method of manufacturing and check out where the ingredients come from in order to fully evaluate a food supplement. However, this is not an easy task, which is why greatlife.se will guide you and describe what you should look out for the next time you´re buying a food supplement. There are two important starting points that you should think about when you read this article: 

  1. It is most definitely better not taking a supplement of low quality than taking them hoping that they might at least do a little good. Supplements of bad quality will not do you any good but might in a worst-case scenario do damage. 
  2. Supplements contain nutrients, which are the building stones for every single cell in your body, your immune system and what will determine your health, both in the short term and in the long run; this is not something you should be negligent about. So, there are few products where quality is as important as when it comes to food supplements. The nutritionist Judith DeCava says "To separate one or more substances in a vitamin complex will convert it from a physiological and biochemically active micronutrient to an inactivated and weakened chemical of that has a low or no value to the living cell. The synergy is gone. 

All vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, flavonoids, phenols etcetera, work in synergy with each other. Who knows which necessary substances we might miss when we don't get the complete nutritional content from the food? Next time that you are about to pick a food supplement, choose a whole food made of organic products. Choose a tablet rather than a capsule if it is a whole food and a capsule rather than a tablet if the tablet is a synthetic food supplement. If possible, check how the supplement has been dried, avoid whole food-food supplements which have been spray-dried with a heat gun or through freeze-drying. Search for non-harmful and exact methods of drying such as Refractance Window Drying. If you have to choose a synthetic food supplement, first read our quick guide at the bottom of this article, which specifies some of the nutrients that are often found in common food supplements. 

The market 

There are more than 1,400 companies around the world manufacturing vitamins and minerals. Most of them do not make their own products, few have their own laboratories, and even fewer have their own primary production of the raw products. Fewer than 1% of all existing food supplement companies own and have the full responsibility for the whole manufacturing chain, which comprises production and handling of raw products, manufacturing as well as the final tests and controls of the food supplement itself. An absolute majority of all vitamin and mineral supplements found on the market are synthetic and produced in factories far from the place of, and out of the control of, the company that puts its label on the product. 

Synthetic supplements or supplements based on whole food? 

Simplified, you can say that when manufacturing synthetic food supplements, you take different basic elements and add them together in a chemical compound. You get a powder which is pressed together into a tablet or put into a capsule. When manufacturing whole food supplements, you take real food and grind it to a juice. Then it is dried into a powder which is pressed into a tablet or put into a capsule. Suppose that you want to make vitamin C: In a synthetic supplement, you make the vitamin C by isolating 6 carbon molecules, 8 hydrogen molecules and 6 oxygen molecules from corn syrup, by using different kinds of acids. Thereafter, they are all put together to make ascorbic acid, which is the chemical name of vitamin C. You get a white powder with the chemical formula C6H8O6. In comparison, in order to manufacture vitamin C in a whole food supplement, you take a whole orange, grind the whole orange and dry it at a low temperature with the purpose of preserving as many nutrients as possible (if the manufacturing company lives up to a high standard). An orange contains more than 170 healthy substances, that have been discovered so far, all working in synergy with the vitamin C. With a whole food supplement, you won´t lose any of these healthy substances needed to optimize your absorption of vitamin C. 

Another example is the mineral chromium which many people don´t get enough of due to the lack of chromium in our soils. Chromium from a Whole Food supplement contains a number of micronutrients helping out with the glucose turnover to help balance the blood sugar. This family of substances are known as Glucose Tolerance Factor (GTF) which cooperates with the insulin to contribute to the uptake of blood glucose. If you instead buy the synthetic version of chromium, it will probably be chromium picolinate, which is the isolated version of chromium, that unfortunately lack parts of the GTF. The effect of chromium picolinate is not at all as sufficient as a Whole Food-based chromium supplement. 

The same is goes for beta carotene, which in its synthetic version might be an isolated substance made of acetylene gas which is not good for your health. Natural beta carotene is never fully present isolated, but always together with other carotenes and xanthophylls (yellow pigments) which is part of a family known as carotenoids. For example, you will not only find beta carotene in a carrot or a tomato but also alpha carotene, canthaxanthin, gamma carotene, omega carotene and others. If you take the isolated beta carotene the cooperation found in the members of the carotenoid family will be decreased. The studies made on an increased risk of getting lung cancer when taking beta carotene is based on isolated, synthetically made beta carotene, and not on a Whole Food beta carotene complex, which instead protects the lungs. The Journal of the National Cancer Institute 2003; 95:1578-86 wrote: "Carotenoids and other secondary botanical substances have been developed as a group of interacting substances, and due to this complexity, the possibility of finding a single protecting isolated substance is reduced". 

Potency 

An argument often used is that synthetical supplements are available at a much higher potency than whole food supplements. A synthetical vitamin C supplement at 1,000 mg delivers almost a 1,000 mg for each capsule or tablet. In order for a decent whole food supplement to deliver 1,000 mg vitamin C, it needs approx. 4,000 mg of the supplement which would lead to the capsules or tablets being too big. This means that a whole food supplement, at maximum, contains 400 mg vitamin C. So, is this worse than the synthetic version containing 1,000 mg? Milligrams is a measurement of weight, but not of efficiency. There are several studies proving that no milligram doses of synthetic supplements can compare to the effect that whole food supplements have regarding absorption and what it does to your body. Furthermore, you should, instead of measuring the weight of one single component which, in this case, is ascorbic acid (Vitamin C), measure the total weight of the contents. In a whole food supplement that is the orange extract. Suppose that you take 4,000 mg of orange extract. A 1,000 mg will be vitamin C and the other 3,000 mg will be healthy phenols, enzymes and other phytonutrients that have incredibly high value from a health perspective. Researchers from Cornell University published a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition where they proved that only 1% of the total antioxidant capacity in an apple came from vitamin C, the rest stems from phenols and flavonoids, substances not present in a synthetical vitamin C supplement. So, what about the potency? Cornell University published a study in the Journal of Nature proving that 5,7 mg of vitamin C from whole food supplements corresponded to 1,500 mg of synthetic vitamin C when looking at the antioxidative effect. The difference in potency is not only related to differences in the structure of vitamin C, but to the whole flora of phytochemical substances that simply is missing in synthetic supplements. So, weight is not the same as efficiency and quality. 

Even though synthetic vitamin E is almost as equally absorbed into your intestines as natural vitamin E, your liver will prefer the natural form as it transports the lipoproteins through your veins to all the tissues in your body. Natural vitamin E is more expensive than synthetic, which also can be found in higher doses, but natural vitamin E is much more efficient and does not carry the same risk of harming your body as synthetic vitamin E does. The magazine, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (AM J Clin Nutr 1998;67:669-84.), published a study proving that natural vitamin E will be stored in the body twice as efficiently as synthetic vitamin E. In another study in the same magazine, researchers found that the natural form of vitamin E was found to be three times the amount in the placenta among women who had taken natural vitamin E as compared to those who had taken synthetic vitamin E. Once again, the conclusion is that it´s not only about dose, but about quality. 

What does my supplement contain? 

You can find anything from really cheap supplements, mostly being trash, to more expensive supplements which are often very good, though that is not always the case. The content and the manufacturing process are what set the price of a supplement. If there is anything you should prioritize for your health, it is good food and good supplements. Is that not much more important than all new jeans and coffee shop visits in the world? Cheap synthetic supplements can do more harm than good. Suppose that you take a cheap calcium product, which is based on calcium gluconate that consists of 9% calcium and 91% glucose. The body will not absorb that kind of calcium in a good way. In order to improve absorption, the calcium gluconate will be treated with hydrochloric acid. This kind of calcium will probably not help your bones, instead, there is a risk that your arteries will be calcified and that the risk of gall and kidney stones increases. So, why is it even sold? There is a very simple reason for this: it is cheap. Another calcium substance called calcium carbonate will be absorbed in a lesser degree than as, for example, calcium citrate (20% calcium, 80% citric acid) which will result in some supplement suppliers trying to improve their supplements by replacing calcium carbonate with calcium citrate. Unfortunately, consuming calcium through calcium citrate will give you four times the amount of citric acid which might decrease the functions in your mitochondria (the motor of the cell) in the cell by an excess of citric acid in what is called the citric acid cycle. 

Another example is magnesium oxide which is the cheapest kind of magnesium. The oxide in magnesium oxide will need antioxidants to be deactivated as soon as it has been absorbed. Taking magnesium oxide supplements will, therefore, use valuable antioxidants that your cells could have used to inhibit the production of free radicals. Once again, some suppliers try to improve their supplements by using magnesium aspartate (20% magnesium, 80% aspartate acid) which might irritate your nervous system if taken in larger doses. 

Another example is vitamin B12, also known as Cyanocobalamin. In order to be absorbed by the cells, the cobalamin must first be freed from the cyanide part, which then must be detoxed by the body. The reason that cheap supplements use Cyanocobalamin is that it costs a tenth of what Methylcobalamin does, which is a better, but still synthetic, kind of vitamin B12. Another interesting example is beta carotene which has had lots of negative publicity in media. All these studies have used the synthetic and cheap versions of beta carotene, which is produced by taking benzene from acetylene gas and then binding it together, creating 100% trans beta carotene. In a natural form, there is never just 100% trans beta carotene. Natural beta carotene can always be found together with other carotenoids, in a combination of trans beta carotene and cis beta carotene. The trans form is the common one present in your tissues, while the cis-form seems to be needed, among other things, to produce natural 9-cis-retinoic acid, which, in turn, works as a hormone in different signal processes meant to normalise the cellular mitosis and good growth of tissues. 

Another not so good version is all the cheap and synthetic forms of vitamin E made from, among other things, soy oil that has been processed to increase the alpha part of vitamin E, and as a result, the manufacturer can charge a higher price. This treatment often leads to the oil going rancid, which will lead to a situation where the vitamin is being used up to prevent further rancidness. Such a product loses all its value and might be directly harmful to your health. 

The examples above are used to show the jungle that the supplement market is. For most manufacturers of supplements, the most important thing is money; if they find a cheaper supplier of synthetic vitamins, they will often choose that supplier, even though there are better raw products. Whole food supplements are often more expensive than other supplements, but there is a good reason for this: they use better raw products, they are efficient, and they won´t do you harm. Using a good whole food supplement, you won't have the hassle of cheap synthetic versions of vitamins and minerals from dubious sources. If you cannot afford a whole food supplement, you are better off not buying anything at all. Save the money and buy a whole food supplement when you can afford it. The Oxford University made a long-term study with 20,000 people, showing that synthetic high potency variants of vitamin C, vitamin E and beta carotene did not have any substantial beneficial health effects. But food containing any of these three nutrients has beneficial health effects. A common synthetic multivitamin-mineral preparation contains approximately 45 isolated nutrients. If an orange contains more than 170 beneficial substances it is easy to calculate that when only getting 45 synthetic isolated nutrients you will be missing out on a lot. 

Are vitamins and minerals in a fluid form better than those in tablets or capsule form? 

Vitamin and mineral supplements in fluid form are commonly marketed. Mineral supplements in fluid form are often in sulphate or chloride form which might cause nausea. Also, minerals in fluid form are not better for the body, even if they are relatively stable in water. Vitamins in fluid form are, on the other hand, not that stable. For example, vitamin B will quickly be degraded in any form of fluid, thereby losing its biological activity and function in the body. Such a supplement will probably only stay fresh for a few weeks. The fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K) can be ingested as oil, but it is very important to get hold of the highest quality merchandise. Therefore, avoid multivitamin and mineral supplements in fluid form, except for vitamins A, D, E, K. 

Are vitamins and minerals in capsules better than those in tablets? 

Some people say that a capsule is better than a tablet. This is related to what kind of food supplement you are referring to though. That a capsule would be better than a tablet is based on a misconception. If you place a whole food vitamin and mineral tablet and a capsule with synthetic vitamins and minerals in a glass of vinegar, the capsule will dissolve much quicker. This might make one believe that the capsule is better. If you place a piece of broccoli in a glass of vinegar it will never be dissolved. Why? Just as the whole food tablet the broccoli needs hydrochloric acid as well as the stomach's peristalsis to be broken down. It doesn't matter how quickly a capsule will be dissolved but on the quality of the content. If you do choose synthetic supplements, a capsule is preferred though. 

Size of tablet or capsule? 

A tablet or a capsule containing a good nutritional supplement will be big since you dry and grind whole foods which are then put together in a capsule or a tablet. This means that you need to have a relatively large amount of dried food to guarantee a certain level of vitamins or minerals. A capsule is normally preferred since no additional products are needed to bind the tablet together. 

Glass or plastic 

The really classy food supplements will normally use dark glass jars since those allow lesser light into the jars than white plastic packaging. You also avoid the release of toxic substances such as BPA (Bisphenol-A) which can be released from plastic jars. 

Are all whole food preparations equally good? 

Unfortunately not. This depends on how the food being used is handled. First of all, it should be organically grown in order to avoid traces of pesticides. There are different ways to dry whole foods. The most popular method is called spray drying which means that the whole food mass will be sent through a vacuum and then be treated by a so-called heat gun, that has a temperature of several hundred degrees Celsius. The whole food mass will dry directly but several important nutrients will be lost. It is a pretty cheap method but not particularly gentle. Another common method is freeze-drying which means that the whole food mass is put on a conveyor through cooling elements, being frozen down to -55 degrees Celsius while water is extracted from the mass. Unfortunately, there are not many phytonutrients that can survive the freeze-drying process. A good whole food supplement should use a careful drying method such as Refractance Window Drying, which means that the whole food mass is dried at a low temperature and will automatically quit drying when the moistness is less than 4% in any single substance. Many whole food suppliers will manufacture their products by adding isolated vitamins to a soy base which is then fermented. This product is, therefore, called whole food but it is certainly not a good whole food supplement and you should avoid this kind. 

In conclusion 

Remember that ... 

It is definitely better not taking poor quality supplements than taking them hoping that they will at least do a little good. Poor-quality supplements will do no good and might cause harm. 

Supplements contain nutrients which in turn are building blocks for every cell in your body and your immune system. It is what will determine your health in both the short term and the long term; this should not be something you take lightly. This also means that there are few products where quality is as important as when it comes to food supplements. 

All vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, flavonoids, phenols, etc., work in synergy with each other. Who knows which necessary substances we might miss when we don't get the complete nutritional content from the food? Next time that you are about to choose a supplement, choose 100% whole food supplements made from organic raw products. Also, choose a tablet before a capsule if it is a whole food; and a capsule rather than a tablet if it is a synthetic supplement. If possible, check how the supplement has been dried, avoid whole food supplements that have been spray-dried with a heat gun or dried with freeze-drying. Search for gentle and precise methods of drying such as Refractance Window Drying. If you must choose a synthetic supplement, first read our quick guide at the bottom of this article which specifies some of the nutrients that are often found in common food supplements. The products found at Innate Response fulfil all the demands of a good whole food supplement that we have presented in this article.