When it comes to talk of nutrition, nutrients, and other compounds like bioflavonoids, the question comes up: what’s better for the body – consuming whole foods like citrus fruits, or taking supplements?
Research on this issue has been varied, because the question itself is difficult to pinpoint.
- Are the nutrients and phytochemicals more/less bioavailable (i.e. easily absorbed into the body)?
- Are the nutrients and phytochemicals degraded by processing?
- How can you measure the effects on human health, when it’s virtually impossible to separate from the rest of the diet?
The results have been inconclusive to date, with some studies suggesting that eating whole foods was more beneficial, while others did not show a difference.
The Lesson Learned From Scurvy
Scurvy is a serious disorder associated with vitamin C deficiency. The ancient civilizations of the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans were plagued by a condition that was then poorly understood.
Treatment came through trial and error, and it wasn’t until the 18th century that eating citrus fruits was recognized as a cure. Vitamin C and its role in human health wasn’t understood until the 20th century.
The lesson to be learned: you don’t have to wait for a full understanding of the mechanisms at work to get benefits from what you eat.
What is known: a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, time and again, has been associated with better health outcomes, and lower incidence of chronic and fatal diseases such as heart and circulatory diseases and cancer.
What The Research Does Show
- Studies that show a relationship between the consumption of foods rich in phytochemicals and protection against chronic diseases often show these results for eating whole foods only.
- The same overall protective effect has not been observed with consumption of specific, isolated phytochemicals in the form of supplements.
What does this mean? We don’t know yet for sure.
- It’s possible that the specific phytochemical that was isolated was the wrong one – another, included in the whole fruit, was actually responsible for the desired result.
- The effects of phytochemicals may actually be additive, meaning the more you consume, the more of an effect is created.
- There may actually be two or three phytochemicals responsible for the benefits to health, working in conjunction with each other.
Learning the lessons from humanity’s struggle with scurvy, however, until there’s a definitive answer, it comes back down to this: the best solution is to eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, including citrus fruits. Trying to isolate specific compounds is a hit or miss solution, and may be harmful at worst.
Keep the focus on an overall healthy diet, and not that magic bullet.