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Real Food Vitamins vs. Synthetic Vitamins: How to Select the Vitamins Your Body Can Actually Absorb

By Aly Walansky
July 13, 2022

It can be hard to get enough vitamins through food these days — there’s more and more evidence that produce found in the grocery store today contains less protein and vitamins than in decades prior. That’s one reason that taking vitamins is a smart part of our daily routine that can help us maintain optimum health. However, when you find yourself perusing the vitamin aisle at your local grocery store, there are just so many options to choose among that it’s hard to know what the right choice is.

Real food vitamins vs. synthetic vitamins

Synthetic vitamins are compounded chemically in a lab with a stable shelf life. This differs from the way plants, fruits, and vegetables — and their nutritional support system, that is, their soil source and water source — naturally produce the vitamins we need through their metabolic process. “Synthetic vitamins or supplements that attempt to mimic what is found in food can be inferior in terms of quality and are usually poorly regulated by governing bodies such as the FDA,” says Caitlin Policastro, NP, who is on the clinical team at New York Center for Innovative Medicine.

Real food vitamins, on the other hand, contain the nutrients that should naturally be found in food sources like vegetables, grains, and fruits, which contain vitamins A, C, E and K. “Trace elements such as  potassium and magnesium can also be found in many fruits and vegetables,” says Policastro.

If you’re curious about real food vitamins, one great option is GEM, which is a daily multivitamin that’s intended to be eaten as food — not just be a pill that you pop. It offers daily nutritional support and contains only whole food, plant-based ingredients with no fillers or synthetics. We’re partial to the GEM Daily Essentials new Lemon Raspberry flavor, a multivitamin that geuinely tastes great and has only whole food and botanical ingredients — while still delivering key vitamins, minerals, and daily nutrition needs.

Vitamins are no substitute for a healthy diet, of course

Research shows that there is a huge benefit to eating whole foods as opposed to singular nutrient synthetic vitamins. “This is because eating a plant in its whole form includes consuming a synergy of several vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals that work together to nourish your body,” says certified nutritionist Serena Poon.

The human body is a complex system and eating a diet rich in whole vegetables and fruits, legumes, and whole grains is going to be your best bet in terms of supporting overall health and longevity. “Foods rich in polyphenols and spermidine help our bodies with cell recovery and cell growth,” says Poon. That said, sometimes supplements can help. But if you decide to take a supplement, make sure you choose a high-quality one, Poon notes. 

Making a change

One indicator of a high-quality supplement is that the ingredients are sourced from whole foods rather than from a synthetic source. “One way to tell if your supplement is made from whole foods is by reading the label,” Poon says. “Labels of supplements made from whole foods will list out fruits, vegetables, and grains in addition to a breakdown of nutrients.”

This may not sound like a huge change, but in the realm of supplements, quality and ingredients matter. “The ultimate goal of taking vitamins and supplements is to absorb the beneficial nutrients they offer,” says Trista Best, RD. And whole food vitamins absorb more easily because they are made from concentrated food sources. This means you are taking in the natural nutrients contained in these foods. 

“Synthetic vitamins, on the other hand, are made from chemicals that are intended to mimic how the body absorbs these nutrients,” says Best. This results in a more difficult-to-absorb vitamin.

A few examples of whole food vitamins include organic carrots as a source of beta-carotene (which your body turns into vitamin A), organic rose hips as a source of vitamin C, and wheat germ as a source of spermidine.

“It’s always best to get everything from a food source since many supplements are not always properly regulated,” says Policastro. “Synthetic vitamins use different chemical processes to mimic the body’s absorption of natural nutrients, which can cause more problems down the road,” says Policastro.

To avoid synthetic vitamins, check for anything that uses “fortified with” or has ingredients that include “dl,” “ide” or “ate,” Policastro says. “There are also common ‘fillers’ used in the US such as magnesium stearate, or stearic acid, and titanium dioxide,” she notes. These are generally considered safe to consume in small quantities, but have no benefits and may possibly be harmful — especially titanium dioxide, which may be a carcinogen

Instead, try a real food vitamin like GEM, which contains exactly zero fillers or problematic ingredients. GEM Daily Essentials come in three delicious flavors — Lemon Raspberry, Citrus Ginger, and Cacao — and they taste like real food because they’re made with real food, including ingredients we know are beneficial for us, like sprouted quinoa, ashwagandha root, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, and spirulina.

Read next: 9 Great Chicken Recipes That Can Be on the Table in 30 Minutes Flat

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