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Whole-food supplements, their advocates insist, better deliver the nutrition of whole foods than do isolated, chemically synthesized supplements-an approach fitting with what consumers are looking for today.
Once upon a time, when people wanted to be healthy, they ate a variety of whole foods-real ones, sourced mostly from plants and in not-too-excessive amounts (as one modern-day maxim puts it). But sometimes those foods weren’t very tasty, or were available only three weeks of the year. Or people just wanted to eat other stuff.
So mankind came up with an ingenious-and, in some cases, lifesaving-workaround: just isolate or synthesize the good-for-you bits from whole foods and deliver them in handy supplements that let people eat whatever they want while still getting the nutrition they need. And for decades, that system worked; for many, it still does.
But nostalgia being what it is, a growing cohort of consumers now longs to go back to those whole-food days; they just don’t want to sacrifice the expediency of supplements to do so. And contemporary agriculture being what it is, the whole foods they long for may, in fact, not be as healthful as they once were anyway.
So it’s in this gap that whole-food supplements show their promise. And it may be in the interest of public health that they do.
Losing Sight of Whole
It’s no secret that in Western societies-ours especially-chronic disorders like diabetes, obesity, and metabolic syndrome have succeeded rickets and scurvy as the “new” malnutrition, in the process redefining the condition away from hunger and toward an epidemic of getting too much of the “bad” stuff and not enough of the “good.”
This comes as no surprise to John P. Troup, PhD, vice president of clinical science, education and innovation, and research and development, Standard Process (Palmyra, WI). As far as he’s concerned, the single biggest culprit in our downward-trending health status is the simultaneous decrease in nutrient density and increase in the poor-quality carbohydrate content of the highly processed Western diet. “We’ve lost sight of whole foods,” he says, “and the whole-food advantage.”
That advantage isn’t just a matter of vitamins and minerals, either. “It’s about delivering vitamins and minerals in a matrix that enhances bioavailability,” Troup emphasizes. “While vitamins and minerals are important, we’ve now discovered that phytonutrients-or phytoactives-are gaining recognition as key influencers not only of the systems underlying metabolic control, but of gut health and normal gut function.”
Theory vs. Fact
The good news is that by simply returning more of those phytonutrient-rich whole foods to our pantries, we can, in theory, stabilize or even reverse some of the damage that the typical Western diet has wrought. But what’s simple in theory may be less so in actual fact.
For if it were, most Americans wouldn’t be eating less than half the fruits and vegetables that the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend-fruits and vegetables that, theoretically, should supply the lion’s share of the phytonutrients we need.
And even if we were meeting our fruit and vegetable quotas, conventional farming has rendered most produce less nutritionally potent than it was in generations past, with research1 showing a 5%-40% decline in the mineral content of foods in the U.S. food supply from the 1930s through the 1980s.
That’s not Saumil Maheshvari’s idea of progress. “Despite the fact that the changes in agriculture and the food industry that occurred over several decades in the late 20th century are publicized as ‘modernization,’” says the marketing analyst at Orgenetics (Brea, CA), “the sad reality may be that the artificially pumped-up yields-per-acre took a hefty toll on the environment and our own health.”
Closing the Phytonutrient Gap
The upshot is a phytonutrient gap into which eight out of 10 Americans fall, Troup notes. And he’s not alone in believing that whole-food supplementation can help to close it.
Of course, that raises the question of what a whole-food supplement is. And ideally, says Maheshvari, “A whole-food supplement is one that’s entirely derived from foods and contains no synthetic additions”-a pedigree that he believes “helps ensure the vital presence of naturally occurring cofactors and co-nutrients.”
By contrast, any supplement that’s not strictly plant derived, that’s synthesized artificially, or that’s otherwise produced via “artificial methods that infuse actives into a matrix-type format,” Maheshvari says, wouldn’t qualify as whole.
Thanks to these credentials, whole-food supplements, their advocates insist, better deliver the nutrition of whole foods than do isolated, chemically synthesized supplements-which, in their isolation and chemical synthesis, aren’t unlike the processed Western diets they aim to supplement.
“Think of it like this,” Maheshvari says. “What makes a car move? It’s not just a powerful engine, or the best tires, or the strongest transmission, etc. A car is truly functional if it has all the parts required, from the engine to the transmission to the tires, and those parts fit and play well with each other.” The same goes for a whole-food supplement. By contrast, “If you have a car with a very powerful engine”-an isolated active-“but thin tires”-insufficient or ineffective cofactors-“the car won’t function optimally.”
Getting the Most Out of Whole
But even whole-food supplements aren’t created equal; the whole-food source and subsequent processing are instrumental to producing the nutritional density that gives them their value.
Or, as Troup explains, “Through extraction and standardization, we can concentrate the whole-food matrix, including the nutrients and phytoactives available from selected plants, and do so in a way that leaves the matrix unchanged and more conveniently delivers health benefits.”
Further, he continues, “From soil to supplement, the manufacturing of our whole-food supplements begins at our company’s 600-plus-acre certified-organic farm shortly after harvest.” Standard Process grows over 80% of the raw plant ingredients for its products at the farm, allowing it to extract plant-based, naturally occurring multiform magnesium from Swiss chard and buckwheat for its E-Z Mg product. “This helps ensure the nutrient density in our products, eliminating the need to source and transport crops, which significantly depletes nutrient values and health benefits.”
For its part, Orgenetics produces supplements like its Orgen zinc using a water-extraction technology to concentrate and standardize the formulation to 4% plant-based zinc, with the remaining 96% comprising an organic guava-leaf extract replete with naturally occurring cofactors and co-nutrients. Even better, Maheshvari adds, such standardization lets formulators and manufacturers deliver precise doses in their finished products.
Will It Scale?
Such fine points may not resonate with average consumers, but the broader concept of whole-food supplements does. “I think consumers are starting to shift toward healthier alternatives and see synthetically derived supplements as unhealthy and often overloaded with actives,” Maheshvari says. Thus, “The market is definitely growing, as consumers around the world get more educated and mindful of what they ingest.”
Millennials, in particular, deserve credit for raising whole-food supplements’ profiles, promising to become the category’s largest domestic consumer base in terms of dollar spend. Social media’s phalanx of Millennial influencers “are certainly convincing factors for more consumers to take up whole-food supplementation,” Maheshvari says.
He also sees as a motivator the subjective “feel-good factor” that comes with whole-food supplementation-a product not only of the supplements’ health benefits, but of the ability they provide consumers to support “a clean and perhaps USDA-organic supply chain,” as well, he says. And make no mistake, “The modern consumer is researching not only the science behind products, but the supply chain, too. They want to know what ingredients are in the product, where they’re from, and how they fit into the product they’ll ingest.”
Granted, this supply chain, coupled with whole-food supplements’ painstaking production, makes them costlier to produce, Maheshvari says, noting that his company’s 100% USDA Certified Organic ingredients “require a huge amount of plant material. Compare this to a chemically induced process for synthetic actives, which can be produced en masse in factories.”
And because whole-food supplements come from plants, crop cycles, seasonal variability, and geography can all hamper sourcing. “Some crops are local to certain regions and climates around the world, which makes sourcing difficult,” Maheshvari points out. “This is one of the biggest challenges to ensuring that every consumer can get sustainably sourced ingredients.”
And as manufacturers look for more organic plants from which to derive whole-food supplements, more organic farmland will have to go into production to meet demand. That’s a pricey and lengthy process, and, as such, Maheshvari says, “The challenge here will be somehow to map out demand so that supply catches up in a responsible and sustainable manner.”
And that demand is ramping up, as far as Maheshvari can tell. “I see more brands adapting whole-food or plant-based ingredients in their formulations,” he says, and again, he credits the savvy consumer for triggering the change. “This is such a growing market that many companies see catering to this consumer as their future livelihood.”
Which is only appropriate for a supplement category that, its makers believe, can improve the future health of those who explore it. “Fortunately,” says Maheshvari, “I think the supplement industry is starting to seek much healthier and cleaner options for savvy and health-conscious consumers.”