What is the difference between synthetic supplements and “natural supplements”?
This is a question we get a lot.
When it comes to nutrients, aiming to get most of your vitamins, minerals, and macros from whole, unprocessed foods will always be ideal.
But let’s face it.
The average lifestyle is busy and doesn’t easily lend itself to getting in a colorful, varied plate at every meal.
So, for those of us who
- Work long and irregular hours
- Prioritize others, caring for family and friends
- Manage existing medical conditions
- Balance personal stressors from our surrounding environment
- Cannot afford all-organic and sustainably-sourced foods
It’s safe to say that though we do our best, we aren’t keeping detailed tallies and charts of our lab work to determine where we are falling short on the nutrient spectrum.
I’ll get this out of the way first: I've got bad news.
Even in an immaculate, perfect nutritional simulation, external factors make it almost impossible to get every nutrient we need through food. That’s reality: even when we do everything right, some things are simply out of our control.
So what is keeping us from getting everything we need through food?
First of all, there is an undeniable environmental factor.
If you haven’t yet read my post on hormone-disrupting chemicals, bookmark it for a quick read when you’re done with this.
A colorful, well-balanced, ultra-varied diet can only do so much. Unfortunately, even with the most careful, educated planning and consideration, the food on your plate may have gaps beyond your control.
Current farming practices in the United States cause most of the soil used to grow our produce to deplete at a rate of ten times the amount it can replenish. Mainstream farming methods often completely strip soil of its nutritional value, which makes the fields producing our food nutrient-deficient due to overuse and repeat planting. To course-correct, conventional farming techniques try to compensate by adding pesticides and fertilizers (hormone disruptors) to revitalize soil. Unfortunately, these chemicals can end up sticking around even after thoroughly washing them. Not only do these residual pesticides alter nutrients in our food, but they are also unsafe for you and your baby's healthy development.
Organic, sustainable farming methods matter. However, since they are no longer the norm, organic, high-quality foods are both less accessible and more expensive. An entirely organic diet can be hard to achieve, especially on a budget.
Second, it’s incredibly challenging to avoid processing altogether.
So much of our food is processed into oblivion these days to increase shelf life and enhance flavor. Continuing to be diligent when reading nutrition labels is a must—the fewer and simpler the ingredients, the better. However, even trusted manufacturers sometimes get a pass from the FDA due to misleading practices in denoting ingredients, so you can assume many of your favorite foods contain chemicals and compounds on which you are not able to educate yourself thoroughly.
Since food is often either contaminated with hormone disruptors like pesticides or is no longer as nutritionally dense due to common-practice processing, we must fill in the gaps. This is especially important while trying to conceive or if you're pregnant or breastfeeding.
So how do I do it?
Cheer up! Here is where the good news comes in.
Filling in these gaps isn’t rocket science. The most viable solution to rectifying nutrient deficiencies that cannot be solved through diet alone is to incorporate supplements.
This can be a complicated topic. Here is where the questions always start to flow:
- What is the difference between synthetic supplements and whole food-based supplements?
- Is one better for you/more efficient than the other?
- How do I know which nutrients I should be supplementing?
That’s a lot to think about. Let’s tackle these one at a time.
1. What is the difference between synthetic supplements and whole food-based supplements?
Technically, synthetic nutrients are considered almost chemically identical to those found in food on a molecular level. And while there is no contest between real food and synthetic supplements when it comes to getting our nutrients, following the same logic when comparing whole food supplements to their synthetic counterparts isn’t always a sure thing. Form and bioavailability play a part in the efficiency equation from nutrient to nutrient. Sometimes whole food-based supplements can be the most effective option, but there are many instances where it can be the least (and this is coming from a staunch, real-food RD!).
Here are the facts.
2. Is one better for you/more efficient than the other?⠀⠀
The short (and perhaps unexpected) answer:
The term “whole food supplement” or “natural supplement” is used a lot in marketing materials to make consumers think it’s a higher quality supplement, when in reality, due to the quantity mentioned above issue, you may not be getting anything even close to the amount you need to make a difference. Generally, a serving of produce will be more nutrient-dense than what can be squeezed into a capsule. This dosage discrepancy is significant for those trying to conceive, those who are pregnant, and those who are breastfeeding since supplementing additional nutrients that come up short through diet is so important to not only mom's health but also baby.
An important thing to remember is that supplements should include forms of nutrients that are bioavailable. Higher bioavailability means more bang for your buck! If a synthetic supplement is chemically identical to a natural supplement and provides a higher level of bioavailability, there’s no reason to avoid it.⠀
3. How do I know which nutrients to supplement while trying to conceive, pregnant, or breastfeeding?
This is a question I get all the time, and I promise I could (and will eventually) write a whole separate blog post about this!
Know that if you’re even thinking about getting down to the nitty-gritty of your nutrient deficiencies through lab work, you’re already ahead of the game. That said, it's not standard practice for primary care physicians to run such detailed lab work for women trying to conceive without a glaring issue at hand, so you will likely have to request these labs from your physician.
For quick reference, here are the labs I run in my private practice, Boston Functional Nutrition, for my clients trying to conceive. Knowing this data can equip you for potential issues, making conceiving easier and your pregnancy healthier.
+Complete Blood Count (CBC) + Ferritin + Iron and Total Iron Binding Capacity (TIBC) + C-reactive Protein (CRP)
These values help get a baseline understanding of your iron status and if any form of anemia may be present. You do not want to go into pregnancy anemic, trust me! Similarly, you don't want to take an iron supplement right out of the gate if you don't need it, as too much iron can cause its own set of issues (one of them being constipation, which we are NOT looking to experience ever, but especially while pregnant!).
+Vitamin D, 25-Hydroxy (Vitamin D 25-OH)
Please note that you are not simply requesting "vitamin D." Many providers mistakenly order Vitamin D-1, 25, which is not the correct way to assess vitamin D status accurately. That number will look relatively high, especially if you are already supplementing with vitamin D. Still, it does not reflect your actual vitamin D status, so be sure the correct test is ordered. I’ve had clients come to me from other providers who have stopped taking vitamin D out of fear of toxicity. This is because their former provider ordered the wrong test. It would be a simple mistake if the stakes weren’t so high: these clients became severely deficient during pregnancy, and we had to work quickly to reverse the issue to ensure it didn’t have a negative effect on their baby.
+Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH) and, ideally, a full thyroid panel (TSH, T4, T3, and thyroid antibodies)
One of the top reasons people struggle with infertility and pregnancy loss is undiagnosed or undertreated thyroid conditions. Understanding your thyroid health before pregnancy is vital. If anything comes back out of the ordinary, it might be worth booking an appointment with an endocrinologist.
Our final call
Nutrients are best consumed through whole, unprocessed food. Still, due to a handful of unavoidable issues with how our food is grown/raised and sourced, it is necessary to supplement while trying to conceive, pregnant, or breastfeeding to support your needs. When it comes to synthetic vs. natural supplements, the most important factors to focus on are less about the supplement’s origin and more about its dosage and bioavailability. As long as you get enough of the nutrients you need, you will be in good shape!
The vitamins and minerals in FullWell Prenatal are an expertly formulated combination of sources of nutrients that are more bioavailable to ensure you get the nutrients you need before, during, and after pregnancy. Please look at our other blog posts to learn more about individual nutrients, why we use them, and why we use them in our forms and quantities. More knowledge is always at your fingertips with FullWell Prenatal.
*The information on this website is provided for educational purposes only and should not be treated as medical advice. FullWell makes no guarantees regarding the information provided or how products may work for any individual. If you suffer from a health condition, you should consult your health care practitioner for medical advice before introducing any new products into your health care regimen. For more information, please read our terms and conditions.
- Cooperman, Todd, M.D. "Is it better to get vitamins from foods or supplements, and are natural vitamins better than synthetic vitamins?" ConsumerLab. April 12. 2019. Web. 24 Mar. 2021. https://www.consumerlab.com/answers/is-it-better-to-get-vitamins-from-foods-or-supplements/natural-vs-synthetic-vitamin/.
- "Food Labeling Secrets You Need to Know to Stay Healthy". Sentient Media. 18 Dec. 2018. Accessed 24 Mar. 2021. https://sentientmedia.org/food-labeling/.
- Brown, Mary Jane, PhD, RD. "Synthetic vs. Natural Nutrients: Does it Matter?" Healthline. 17 Aug. 2016. Accessed 24 Mar. 2021. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/synthetic-vs-natural-nutrients#TOC_TITLE_HDR_6.
- "Human plasma and tissue alpha-tocopherol concentrations in response to supplementation with deuterated natural and synthetic vitamin E". National Center for Biotechnology Information. Accessed 24 Mar. 2021. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9537614/.
- "Teratogenicity of high vitamin A intake". National Center for Biotechnology Information. Accessed 24 Mar. 2021. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/7477116/.