We push our clients to shop regularly at farmers' markets, because foods sold there tend to contain vastly more micro-nutrients than grocery store versions of the same thing.
Recently, one client asked, ‘if I take lots of vitamins, shouldn’t that make up for the reduced vitamin-load in the foods I buy at the grocery store?’
The short answer is: no.
To understand why, you need to know a little about micro-nutrients, or essential vitamins and minerals. There’s scientific consensus on this full official list:
First, there are water-soluble vitamins:
- Biotin (vitamin B7)
- Folic acid (folate, vitamin B9)
- Niacin (vitamin B3)
- Pantothenic acid (vitamin B5)
- Riboflavin (vitamin B2)
- Thiamin (vitamin B1)
- Vitamin B6
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin C
Then you have the fat-soluble vitamins:
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin E
- Vitamin K
You have the major minerals:
And you have the trace minerals:
So how did the scientific establishment come up with this list?
Basically, these are things that, if you leave them out of a rat’s diet, the rat dies. That’s how we deemed them essential.
But wait, you might be saying. Couldn’t there be other vitamins that are important, that lead to serious problems if we omit them, but don’t actually lead to death? There a lots of terrible things that can happen to you short of actually dying.
And, in fact, you’d be totally right.
For example, we know that if you don’t get enough Lutein and Zeaxanthin, you’ll get macular degeneration and go blind. But, hey! At least you’re still alive!
As a result of their absence not killing you, even though most of us prefer to be able to see things, Lutein and Zeaxanthin aren’t officially vitamins, and don’t appear on any RDA list.
And those are just two of more than 600 carotenoids, all of which are just as likely to be biologically important, as are any number of other types of compounds found in foods. It’s still a fairly new field of research, and there’s lots we don’t know.
Which is, in short, the problem with just taking vitamins instead of eating fresh foods, as well as the problem with making fake, industrial foods.
Michael Pollan has written about the idea of ‘nutritionism,’ the dominant paradigm in the food industry that sees foods as essentially reducible to the sum of their nutrient parts. By that approach, you can break foods apart into their constituent nutrients, and then package them back together into something new, with no ill effects. In fact, sometimes the ‘new food’ is even better than what you started with. A protein bar is super healthy, right?
Unfortunately, it turns out we actually suck at that kind of disassembling and re-assembling, most likely because we wildly underestimate the number of things (like the aforementioned Lutein and Zeaxanthin) we lose in the process, things that are hugely important but we just don’t know about yet.
Consider a version of this problem that you probably already know about: baby formula. Breast-feeding (or pumping) is difficult and time-consuming. So, since 1867 (and “Liebig's Soluble Food for Babies”), we’ve been trying to make a commercially-available replacement. By now, formula is an $8 billion global market. Each year, companies spend unfathomable amounts of money on R&D, trying to improve just that one single food. And, even so, it still sucks. Kids raised on the most cutting-edge formula still fare less well than those breast-fed real milk.
In other words, even after we’ve focused literally a century and a half of heavily funded nutritionism efforts on a single food, we still can’t make that food as good as the original.
In which case, what are the odds that your Egg Beaters are actually healthier than a couple of fresh eggs?
That one’s not rhetorical, because we actually know the odds are zero. It turns out, if you feed rats a diet of just eggs, they live long and healthy lives. Whereas rats in the same study who were fed just Egg Beaters died after three or four weeks.
To recap: we clearly have no idea about all the important stuff food contains. So eating ‘designed’ foods is clearly a terrible idea. Instead, eat real foods. Eat a variety of them. Eat foods that can go bad, and eat them before they do. Try and get them as fresh as you can, because that’s when they have more of the stuff that we still don’t really know about but you clearly need to have a long and happy and healthy life.