The Scoop on Whole Food Vitamins (and why that label may be misleading)

There are a lot of things to consider when evaluating what vitamins to take. So when doing your research, you might have come across the option of whole food vitamins. And since vitamins and supplements are often taken to support your overall wellbeing, much like healthy food, it might seem like whole food vitamins are a safer, and more effective replacement to eating whole foods than other vitamins. But in digging into research to formulate our own Prenatal Multi, we learned that this wasn’t necessarily the case. Here’s why.

Potency/Nutritional Content

While it might seem like the nutritional content of whole foods is fixed and consistent, the reality is, it varies quite a bit. Growing conditions, soil health, time harvested, storage conditions, transit time, and cooking methods are just some of the factors that can impact the nutritional content of whole foods. That means that even though a nutrition calculator will tell you that one cup of strawberries has 85mg of Vitamin C, it might actually be far less if the strawberry was grown in depleted soil, took a week to get to the grocery store, and then sat under fluorescent lights for another few days before you bought them. 

Processing a vitamin from whole foods adds another layer of complexity that can dramatically impact what ends up in the final product. How the ingredients are stored, how the nutrients are extracted, and how they are preserved are key to maintaining potency throughout the process. But because supplements aren’t tested and regulated in the same way as drugs, you really need to trust the company behind the product, and when possible, review their third-party testing results. What you see on the label isn’t necessarily what you get. 

Potency is really hard to control in whole food vitamins, and independent lab analysis has shown that in many cases, the nutrients listed on the label don’t match what shows up in the product. Because of potency challenges, many whole food vitamins attempt to introduce consistency by mixing their whole food substances with synthetic vitamins (like Folic Acid, the synthetic form of Folate), which ultimately results in a product that is lower quality and less absorbable (not to mention misleading, as they are not truly “whole food vitamins”). Some also include significant overages in their formulas to compensate for degradation in the process and ensure that the levels on the bottle meet the levels that are actually present. 

There are similar purity concerns for plant-based proteins, which is why we find hydrolyzed Collagen to be a safer option for mamas and mamas-to-be to meet their protein needs.

Purity concerns

Because of the presence of heavy metals in soil, whole food vitamins are subject to absorbing and concentrating these same potentially harmful substances in their formulas. In fact, when tested by third parties like the Clean Label Project, many whole food vitamins were found to have elevated levels of heavy metals including Arsenic, Cadmium, Lead, and Mercury. When these vitamins are consumed, the heavy metals can end up in mama’s bloodstream and ultimately make their way to baby during the vulnerable stages of fetal development.

It’s worth noting that all whole foods grown in soil are subject to heavy metal exposure. It is a sad reality of the state of our food system, and it echoes the importance of trusting your food source to care for their soil. However, the risks that come with whole food based vitamins are higher than food as they are highly concentrated in vitamins themselves. It requires a lot of foods to be processed to create a vitamin, and that volume of food multiplies your heavy metal exposure. 

Nutrient forms 

While whole foods themselves come in forms that are easily absorbed and assimilated by the body, this benefit doesn’t necessarily carry over to whole food vitamins and supplements.

  • Vitamin A: The active and most absorbable form is Retinyl Palmitate, found in liver and other animal foods. The less absorbable form that is inefficiently converted in the body into a usable form is Beta Carotene. Beta Carotene is the plant source typically found in whole food vitamins
  • Folate: Whole food vitamins tend to include Folic Acid vs. Methylfolate (the active form) in their formulas. Since 40-60% of mamas have a genetic mutation that prevents them from converting Folic Acid into Methylfolate, it’s important to take a form that your body can use from the start. Note that while this genetic mutation, known as MTHFR, is common, it often doesn’t present with any outward signs. So unless you’ve undergone genetic testing to show you don’t have it, it’s quite likely that you do but don’t even know it! Also note that many whole food vitamins make this a little tricky to understand on the label, listing “Folate” but then separately noting that a large portion of it is actually Folic Acid - e.g., Folate (Folic Acid with broccoli, 600mg DFE (353mcg Folic Acid)). Because of the importance of Folate for fetal development, and the inability of many women to process Folic Acid, we always exclude Folic Acid, opting instead for Methylfolate, a mindfully-made nutrient that your body can best utilize.
  • Iron: Heme Iron, or Iron from animal sources, is far better absorbed by the body than non-heme, or plant-based Iron. In fact, studies estimate that only approximately 2-20% of non-heme Iron is able to be used by the body. Since whole food vitamins are sourced from plants, the Iron they contain is non-heme, and not nearly as bioavailable. However, note that we encourage you to consider whether you need Iron in your prenatal vitamin at all. Iron can cause unwanted interactions when packaged with other vitamins and minerals, and needs vary by mama and by stage of pregnancy. Iron needs do increase during pregnancy, but mamas who consume animal foods may be getting all they need from food. Since excessive Iron supplementation can cause oxidative damage in the gut, and also be constipating, we exclude it from our Prenatal Multi and offer it separately for mamas who do need it.
  • Vitamin K: Whole food vitamins typically include Vitamin K1 rather than Vitamin K2. Vitamin K2 has been shown to stay in the bloodstream longer for better absorption and also help support bone health by directing Calcium to the bones rather than the arteries.
  • Vitamin B12: Vitamin B12 is available as Methylcobalamin, Adenosylcobalamin, and Cyanocobalamin. Methylcobalamin and Adenosylcobalamin are the most bioavailable and active forms. Whole food vitamins typically contain Cyanocobalamin, which is less bioavailable. 
  • Vitamin D: Some whole food vitamins opt for Vitamin D2 over Vitamin D3 as Vitamin D2 is the form found in small amounts in some plant sources (like mushrooms). However, Vitamin D3, the form found in animal-sourced foods and the form that your body makes when exposed to sunlight is much more bioavailable than Vitamin D2. After all, it’s the type your body naturally makes itself! 

Our Approach: Nature First

At Needed, we recognize that nutrition is nuanced. The decision of whether to use an ingredient grown in nature (“whole food vitamins”) or one that is grown in a more controlled environment varies by nutrient. When designing our Prenatal Multi, we evaluated every single nutrient , paying close attention to nutrient potency, usability by the body, and nutrient interactions when selecting the optimal form and amount of our 24 vitamins and minerals. We use "mindfully-made” ingredients over whole food-based ingredients when the quality and purity of whole food sources don’t meet our strict standards. Our mindfully-made ingredients are not true synthetics (like Folic Acid), rather they are forms that exist in nature that we recreate thoughtfully in a controlled environment. All ingredients are selected and dosed in partnership with leading practitioners and researchers.

You’ve got this

If you’re currently taking or have previously taken whole food vitamins and are alarmed to hear some of this info, know that this is not intended to induce mom guilt of any kind. We are committed to informing and empowering mamas with the information we wished we had when we were choosing our prenatal vitamins. As part of this, we want to make mamas aware of the nuances that exist among whole foods vitamins. It isn’t as simple as whole foods = good, and vitamins synthesized in a more controlled environment = bad. 

We encourage you to research the company behind your prenatal vitamin, so that you can trust its ingredient selection, manufacturing processes, and testing protocols. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and then choose what feels right to you. Because your health matters, mama.