What makes a supplement genuinely “whole food”? And why is this category growing twice as fast as traditional supplements?
Look no further than the food industry’s local, organic, and sustainable movement for proof that consumers care about where their products originate. It was only a matter of time until this curiosity extended to the supplement aisle. And when it comes to whole-food supplements, the questions are clear, says Erin Stokes, ND, medical director at Food State, makers of MegaFood (Derry, NH): “Whole-food supplements have an increased level of awareness surrounding them because people want to know the answer to the question: Where does the whole food actually come from?”
The answer, however, is sometimes a bit muddier. Like the term natural, the term whole food suffers from a lack of regulation, leaving the definitions up to each company entering the market, and clouding it with confusing terminology.
One such buzz-term is food-based supplement, which, according to Stokes, is a conventional supplement ingredient with a food ingredient added in later. “So, in this case, the nutrient isn’t being delivered in the whole food,” she explains, “but rather it’s being delivered side-by-side with a food powder.”
Whole-food supplements and ingredients, on the other hand, offer manufacturers and consumers nutrients delivered right in the whole-food ingredient as it exists in nature. And it’s resonating with shoppers.
According to Karren Jeske, corporate communications manager at Standard Process Inc. (Palmyra, WI), the whole-food supplement market grew 12% in 2012 to reach $1.2 billion, “which was twice the rate of the overall supplement industry,” she adds. “And industry experts expect the whole-food supplements category to continue to outpace growth of the total supplement industry for the foreseeable future.”
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How They’re Made
The key to delivering whole nutrition begins with how the ingredients are sourced and prepped for formulation. At MegaFood, for example, oranges are frozen at their peak of freshness at the farm, and arrive in crates to the lab. “We’re not getting whole-food powders delivered,” Stokes said. “We see boxes of whole oranges arrive.”
This means that whole-food ingredient suppliers and manufacturers can control exactly how the food is treated, “including the drying process,” says Stokes, which at MegaFood yields small flakes bright in color and rich in flavor. “Sometimes it’s those simple things, like tasting cranberry coming right off the dryer, that are the most profound,” she adds.
Similarly, Standard Process Inc. starts with whole raw materials like Spanish black radish and beets, explains Jeske. “We prepare these ingredients in a way that safeguards their inherent nutrition,” she says. “The vegetables are chopped, dried, and powdered under conditions that optimize preservation of important compounds such as the sulfur-containing phytochemicals called glucosinolates. Equally important is the preservation of the plant enzyme, myrosinase, that facilitates conversion of the glucosinolate to its potent metabolite responsible for up-regulating important detoxification enzymes in the body.”
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The Whole Nutrition Benefit
As compared to conventional supplements, whole-food supplement manufacturers differentiate themselves with-and pride themselves on-whole nutrition. What does that mean?
“Whole-food supplements provide nutrition in a form that most closely mimics whole food,” explains Jeske. “It is in this whole-food state that nutrition is typically harnessed and presented to the body. Whole, unprocessed foods, such as fruits and vegetables, contain not only the identified ‘essential’ vitamins and minerals that our bodies require, but also other compounds, such as phytochemicals, lipids, proteins, fiber, etc., that are increasingly recognized as integral to optimal functioning of our bodies.”
This means, for example, that a whole-food vitamin C is delivered in oranges, a whole food folate is delivered in spinach, and so on.
“Conventional supplements,” explains Jeske, “are typically produced solely with synthetic single vitamins and minerals, or isolated and concentrated compounds from food combined together into a mixture, which usually lacks any matrix or complementary co-factors inherent in food.”
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Because whole-food supplements deliver nutrients in a whole-food matrix, they are often easier to digest than conventional options, says Stokes. And that’s important when many consumers complain of stomach upset or difficulty tolerating conventional supplements. “This is because we know how to digest food,” she adds. “Our bodies know how to utilize whole-food supplements because they know how to utilize whole food.”
Along these same lines, whole-food supplements can be taken on an empty stomach-something that can’t be said of many conventional options. “As a practitioner, this tells me patients can be more consistent in taking their supplements,” says Stokes. “People can be very inconsistent with their supplements, and it’s understandable. People have busy lives and are often on the go, and eliminating the hurdle of having to take it with a meal can make a difference.”
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The benefits of whole-food ingredients aren’t limited to consumer nutrition and tolerance. PLT Health Solutions (Morristown, NJ) recently launched a line of Vibrant Harvest Whole Food Powders, available to food, beverage, and supplement manufacturers looking to incorporate servings of high-quality fruits and vegetables into consumer products, in an efficient way.
“For example, as little as 3 g of Vibrant Harvest spinach, or as little as 5.5 g of Vibrant Harvest strawberries, can deliver a serving in a consumer product,” explains the company’s director of new product development, Sid Hulse. “This low level of addition means that, if you want to, you can hide the spinach from a picky eater. But the great taste and color of Vibrant Harvest powders also means that you can feature these ingredients.”
Additionally, whole-food powders can also reduce packaging, handling, transportation, and storage inputs associated with raw or frozen foods, adds Hulse. “They can also extend shelf-life and preserve the nutrients present in fruits and vegetables,” he says, “limiting food spoilage and waste.”
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