Wednesday, May 25, 2011

To Take or Not to Take...Missing Nutrients and Supplement Quality

Through the years, I have received numerous questions about what vitamin/mineral, nutrient and herbal supplements to take.  I have spent much time and study regarding the use and benefits of various supplements and have attempted to determine which nutrients are essential for supplementation and what brands are the highest quality.  This is not as easy a task as I would prefer, LOL, nor is it a completed task.

The consumer market is flooded with supplement products.  It seems there is a new item being merchandised every week.  There is no lack of available products from which to choose.  Unfortunately, you cannot walk into any health food store and be assured that whatever you pick off the shelf is a quality product.  Just because it is marketed in the "alternative health" realm does not mean it is actually viable and beneficial.

I am of the opinion that it is ideal to receive all essential nutrients from real food.  But we find ourselves in the conundrum of not being able to rely merely on food because of the modern scourge of industrial agriculture that has raped our soil and depleted it of nutrients, not to mention the industrial pollution that has spread toxins into our soil and water.  An interesting study is to compare the nutrient quality of food items from a few decades ago to those being grown now.  

Thomas Pawlick, in The End of Food, highlights tomatoes in his investigation of the degenerating nutritional quality of food.  For example, from 1963 to 2002, USDA food tables show that tomatoes have lost 31% of their vitamin A and 62% of calcium.  A summary of Pawlick's work, including the nutrient breakdown, can be found here.  [I came across an interesting class assignment from the University of Guelph in Canada that uses Pawlick's book.]  You can examine current USDA food tables at the agency's website.

Did I mention that those studies were on conventionally grown foods?  Makes sense.  What about organically grown produce?  While I believe organic produce also would be less nutritious than in times past, it certainly is more nutrient dense than the industrial counterparts (check out next2eden's article on the topic).  But it still begs the question...can we get all the nutrients we need from real food alone?

Sadly, I think least, it would be difficult to do so.  One would need to be eating daily and weekly portions of wild cold-water fatty fish (like salmon and sardines), organic grass-fed beef and/or lamb, homemade marrow-rich bone broths and fish broths, raw organic cultured dairy foods such as kefir and yogurt, multiple daily servings of organic fruits and vegetables grown in organism-rich soil (including root veggies and squashes)...and a large variety of them.  That is not an all-inclusive list by any means, but it gives you the idea.  Even those of us who try to eat as much of this nourishing food as possible are going to be subject to certain deficiencies based upon our individual body's needs, the state of our natural beneficial flora, the other "non-real" foods we might be eating, and our exposure to toxicity (all of which greatly influence your ability to absorb and use nutrients).  As much as I desire to rely on food alone, I believe there are times when we require more.  Hence, supplementation.

As I will discuss at length in an upcoming post, herbs are foods and when used in their natural whole food form, they are exceedingly nutritious.  Herbs can be used for nutrient supplementation; teas are a wonderful way to use herbs for their vitamin/mineral content.  You can also take encapsulated herbs (dried, ground herbs), or just mix powdered herbs into a smoothie or even a glass of water.  This is a wonderful way to boost your daily nutrient intake.  As I said, more on this in greater detail in future...but until then, you could start your "herbs for nutrition" journey by reading Mark Pedersen's Nutritional Herbology.

I have a list of supplements that I have chosen over the years as "essentials;" it is by no means an exhaustive recommendation.  I think we all would thrive with particular additions to our diet, such as high-quality fish oils, probiotics, and nutrient-dense superfoods like algae and berries (camu camu, bilberry and goji are at the top of my list).  I might compile my list of favorites for a future post.  My desire here is to cause you to cogitate on the issue of food nutrient losses and to encourage you to question the quality and viability of the multitudinous consumer supplement offerings.

Lest my message be misconstrued, I want to emphasize that I do not want a government regulatory body telling me what supplements I can take and limiting my choices any more than I want the government telling me I cannot drink raw milk or birth my babies at home.  Such intervention is an unwarranted and malevolent encroachment.  On the contrary, when it comes to any consumer products, I believe the free market should be allowed to regulate itself.  With an educated populace making informed choices, the offerings of little or no quality will fail over time.

It is important when choosing supplements that you do some research on the company and its offerings.  Every supplement company has (or should have) a phone number for consumer questions.  Any manufacturer unable or unwilling to give you source and product information should be avoided.  Good companies often offer research materials on their products and ingredients.  Certainly, some companies have excellent reputations and are recommended by respected holistic practitioners.  These are usually a good place to start; if you trust the recommendation, you might by-pass the research phase.  When you do have an opportunity to receive product information, weigh it carefully.  You should be buying supplements of the purest natural quality possible.

I can tell you from personal experience that many of the vitamin supplements sold today are sourcing their ingredients from the same place.  Many supplement constituents are derived from corn or other undesirable sources.  I have found that there exists much less diversity among manufacturers than one would this world of global sourcing, the components seem to have been aggregated by fewer and fewer producers.  Buying from smaller manufacturers can help you to avoid the "mass-market" quality dilemma, but it is not a need to do some homework.

My message here is the same one that reverberates throughout this forum...question, question, question.  Don't assume anything.  Until next time, be well and become your own expert!