Vitamins and minerals in supplements are synthetic forms of the nutrients. The word “synthetic” doesn’t necessarily mean inferior, however. Even those supplements that claim to have “natural” ingredients contain some synthetic ingredients. Therefore, if a pill contained only natural ingredients, it would be huge.
It is generally best to get your vitamins (as well as minerals) naturally from foods or, in the case of vitamin D, controlled sun exposure. For example, recent research on the mineral calcium suggests that it is safest to get your calcium from foods that are naturally rich in calcium than from supplements.
Exceptions to the “foods are better” rule are two B vitamins. Ten to thirty percent of older people don’t properly digest and absorb natural vitamin B-12 from foods, so it is recommended to get B-12 from a supplement if you are over age 50.
Supplements aren’t intended to substitute for food. They can’t replicate all of the nutrients and benefits of whole foods, such as fruits and vegetables. Whole foods offer three main benefits over dietary supplements:
- Greater nutrition. Whole foods are complex, containing a variety of the micronutrients your body needs.
- Essential fiber. Whole foods, such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes, provide dietary fiber. As part of a healthy diet, fiber can help prevent certain diseases, such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease, and it can also help manage constipation.
- Protective substances. Many whole foods are also good sources of antioxidants — substances that slow down a natural process leading to cell and tissue damage. It isn’t clear that antioxidant supplements offer the same benefits as antioxidants in food. Some high-dose antioxidant supplements have been associated with health risks.