This is a hairy subject. You will think I am probably way off left field. But anyway, here we go. First, let’s make sure I’m clear about what it is I’m talking about.

According to Wikipedia (yes, I do on occasion consult it for the conventional wisdom), dietary supplements are defined under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA) as “a product that is intended to supplement the diet and contains any of the following dietary ingredients:

  • a vitamin
  • a mineral
  • an herb or other botanical (excluding tobacco)
  • an amino acid
  • a dietary substance for use by people to supplement the diet by increasing the total dietary intake, or
  • a concentrate, metabolite, constituent, extract, or combination of any of the above

Furthermore, a dietary supplement must also conform to the following criteria:

  • intended for ingestion in pill, capsule, tablet, powder or liquid form
  • not represented for use as a conventional food or as the sole item of a meal or diet
  • labeled as a “dietary supplement”

Under the direction of the DSHEA, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates dietary supplements as foods, not as drugs.

In other words, dietary supplements (or supplements, hereafter), are extracted or condensed or synthesized substances. Even though legally they are not “drugs,” they are obviously not whole foods. They are “taken”, not “eaten”. There is a class of supplements called “whole food supplements” that use what is now the prestigious label of “whole food” to give themselves a more wholesome air. These types of supplements are concentrated from whole foods – but of course they’re not “whole foods” either because they are sold as powders, pills, and capsules. They cannot be cooked. My suggestion has been to call them “supplements derived from whole foods.”

In any case, supplements are isolated components. The majority are vitamins and minerals which are found in foods – but they are either synthesized in the lab or extracted from plants. Their use is based on the idea that if a little is good (in the food), then more is better (extracted, concentrated, and augmented). Supplements are made/manufactured by human hands, under the direction and influence of human brains – as opposed to regular foods, which grown naturally following the plants’ DNA blueprint. You can only get a carrot by planting a carrot seed and waiting for it to grow. You can obtain a Vitamin A supplement from a chemistry lab.

Since the 1950’s or so, a few years after vitamins had been discovered and named, it has become a standard recommendation that people should “supplement” their diet by taking these substances. Mostly because food seemed to have lost its ability to nourish the consumers. Many studies by numerous learned people have come up with suggestions about how much and what types of supplements, what dosages, and how often these should be taken. The generic version is the “multi-vitamin,” which is supposed to give a general dose good enough for most people. Technically, then, if you take a good multi-vitamin with 100% of the recommended daily allowances, you can spend the rest of the day eating junk food with no nutrients in it and you’d be fine.

Well, I don’t believe that. Here is my point. Yes, there is such a thing as deficiency diseases (the better known ones include scurvy, beri-beri, and pellagra). Vitamins and minerals in supplement form are medicine, not food. Food, derived from plants and animals contains, together with those minerals and vitamins, numerous other substances, some known, some not known, that will help nourish the body.

In addition, my normally suspicious nature prevents me from totally trusting these things. Humans are notorious for making mistakes – how can I be sure that the supplement in question contains what it says it does on the label? How can I be sure that it’s the right amount? How can I know that it is what my body needs? The recommendations are all based on studies that rely on statistics – will these apply to me? What if I am among the 2% that is likely to have a negative reaction?

Not only that – what happens to a body that is regularly dosed with vitamins and minerals outside their natural context (food)? How do you balance that? If supplemental nutrients are needed to balance junk food that has no nutrients – then I would think that supplemental nutrients need to be balanced by nutrient-free junk food. A vicious circle ensues, and as long as one is on the supplements, there will be no body hunger for natural whole foods – thereby reinforcing the notion that people can’t be counted on to eat right, and they need . . . a pill or capsule to be healthy. Sounds like medicine to me.

Finally, there’s this: Unless there is a demonstrated deficiency, taking supplements comes from the notion that we are not getting enough. This is a fear-based notion. I believe, of all people in the world, we in the US have plenty and enough – most of us have enough food to live comfortably. I personally don’t like the idea of coming from scarcity – I prefer to believe there is abundance for us everywhere. For all these reasons, I cast my lot with eating plenty of real, whole, natural foods.

So here is a nice green drink with plenty of minerals and vitamins, and besides it tastes great. It’s from my book The Whole-Food Guide for Strong Bones: A Holistic Approach (New Harbinger Publications).

Green Drink II

This simple green drink is quick and easy to prepare in a blender, and a great way to start the day. Rudolph Ballentine, MD, author of Radical Healing (Ballentine and Funk 2000), says that cilantro is a natural chelator, which means it removes toxic minerals from the body. He recommends eating about 1/2 cup per day. As with the other green drink, many variations are possible. Try adding some avocado, celery, arugula, or other greens.

1 clove garlic, peeled
2 cups washed salad greens
1/2 cup packed parsley or cilantro
1/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 cups water
1 tablespoon ground flaxseed

1. Remove the measuring cap from the lid of a blender, start the machine, and then drop in the garlic, cover and process until fully minced.

2. Add the remaining ingredients, cover the blender, and process for about 2 minutes, until well blended. Drink immediately, or sip through the morning.. If you let it sit, it separates, but you can just stir to reblend. Makes one 2-cup serving.