Food-based supplements fall into several categories:
A nutritional supplement like a multivitamin with whole-food powders—usually fruit and vegetable blends—added.
A nutritional supplement sourced from whole-food ingredients. For example, the vitamin C in a multivitamin might be derived (isolated) from acerola cherry.
A nutritional supplement made entirely of whole-food blends, with no added vitamins or minerals.
Ideally, food-based supplements have all of the nutrition—including vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and other vital plant compounds—found in the fresh fruits and vegetables that they contain.
A supplement smorgasbord
Let’s take a look at some of the more common ingredients included in whole food supplements and how they can benefit your body. While the foods have been organized according to their dominant properties or characteristics, many of the ingredients have overlapping and synergistic actions in the body.
- Apples help regulate blood sugar, lower total and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels, decrease the risk of asthma, lung cancer, and heart disease, and help reduce inflammation in the body. Apples are a good source of fiber and vitamin C and are especially rich in a group of disease-preventing antioxidants called polyphenols.
- Blueberries are high in vitamin C, vitamin K, and manganese—in fact, they boast the highest antioxidant capacity of 77 tested antioxidant-rich foods. In clinical trials, they have shown anti-inflammatory, heart-protective, and blood sugar–regulating activity. Blueberries enhance neuronal transmission, supporting memory, and they may decrease colonic inflammation, increase beneficial gut bacteria, support healthy blood fat levels (blood lipids such as cholesterol and triglycerides), and protect against Parkinson’s disease and drug-induced liver injury.
- Carrots are an abundant source of beta-carotene, and also a great source of vitamin K. Recent studies suggest that carrots help protect against heart disease, support healthy vision, and support colon health.
- Green tea—and its antioxidants known as catechins—has been extensively studied and shown to support heart health in several ways: helping arteries stay healthy, protecting against blood clots, and improving blood lipids. Consuming green tea may decrease the risk of several types of cancer (including breast, colon, lung, bladder, and biliary tract cancer), help prevent osteoporosis and gum disease, and protect against neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
- Raspberries are high in vitamin C, manganese, vitamin K, magnesium, and folate, and are a good source of omega-3 fatty acids. They might decrease the risk of several types of cancer (including breast, cervical, prostate, esophageal, and colon cancer) and recent studies have shown that they may play a role in preventing obesity and stabilizing blood sugar levels in overweight people with type 2 diabetes.
- Tomatoes are a terrific source of vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin K, potassium, beta-carotene, lycopene, and manganese. They contain key nutrients that help support cardiovascular health by lowering blood fats (cholesterol and triglycerides) and inhibiting blood clotting. They’ve also been shown to decrease prostate and breast cancer risks and to protect blood vessels from the damaging effects of high blood sugar.
- Broccoli is a rich source of folate, vitamin B6, vitamin C, and vitamin K. Chock-full of nutritional goodness, with anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and liver-supporting activities, it may inhibit the formation of several types of cancer (including colon, breast, prostate, ovarian, and bladder cancer), help lower cholesterol levels, and support cardiovascular health.
- Kale—an outstanding source of vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin K, manganese, potassium, vitamin B6, and calcium—has rightly earned its reputation as one of the most nutritious vegetables. As a member of the Brassica family (which includes broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts), it has potent anticancer and cleansing actions in the body. Regular kale consumption may decrease risk of bladder, breast, ovary, colon, and prostate cancer and may help lower cholesterol levels.
- Spinach is packed with vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin K, vitamin E, manganese, folate, magnesium, iron, and the antioxidant nutrients, lutein and zeaxanthin, which are thought to have an abundance of anti-inflammatory and anticancer benefits. Research also suggests that spinach can help decrease intestinal inflammation and support bone health.
- Beets are a good source of manganese, vitamin C, and vitamin K, and boast a wealth of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. They also help support liver health, and regular beet consumption may protect against colon cancer and heart disease.
- Artichokes are rich in folate, vitamin C, vitamin K, and an abundance of different disease-fighting antioxidant compounds. These help support the liver, the body’s major detoxifying organ. Eating artichokes may help prevent breast cancer, liver cancer, liver disease, diabetes, and heart disease. Artichokes may also help lower cholesterol and soothe IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) symptoms.
"I'd rather see my patients get their nutrients from wholesome foods than from vitamins," explains Dr. Maria Boorman, a Victoria, BC-based physician specializing in whole foods nutrition and functional medicine. "When someone needs a vitamin supplement, though, I prefer to use food-based ones, as I think they're more absorbable. Food-based multivitamins are a good option for pregnant women who need to be careful not to overdose on certain nutrients and whose digestive systems may prevent them from being able to take a standard prenatal vitamin."
How to choose a food-based supplement
Since whole foods supplements often contain concentrated sources of fruits and vegetables, select those that have been tested for pesticide residues or are certified organic. Also look for supplements that have been NSF-GMP (National Sanitation Foundation-Good Manufacturing Practice) registered so you can be assured of the identity, quality, and purity of the ingredients listed on the label