There is a school of thought that suggests that micronutrients should be provided by the food we eat. In general this is a reasonable contention and one that should be recommended. Supplements should not take the place of food, but as the name implies, be used where dietary source of the micronutrient in question is not available or not present in high enough amounts to satisfy metabolic needs. However, the contention is often made that the micronutrients in food are somehow ‘better’ than the nutrients provided by supplements, and this is the point where the ‘natural is better’ argument often derails. While many perceive the micronutrients in food to be ‘natural’ and the micronutrients in supplements to be ‘synthetic’, the reality here is that the distinction between natural and synthetic versions of micronutrients is difficult to define. Care must therefore be taken with definitions as many supplements provide ‘food forms’ of nutrients that are just as bioavailable as those found in food.
Many studies have compared individual micronutrients from food with those present in dietary supplements. For example, in one study, researcher compared the bioavailability of potassium from potatoes with that from a potassium gluconate supplement. Subjects consumed potassium from unfried potatoes, french fries (chips) or a potassium gluconate supplement for 5 days each. This was in addition to the potassium they obtained in their diet. The results of the study showed that as the dose of potassium in the food or supplement increased their was an increase in blood potassium levels. However, the source of the potassium did not affect the blood levels suggesting that the potassium from supplements was as bioavailable as the potassium from potatoes and potato products. The absorption of the potassium from all source was high at 94 %, and the potassium from the food and supplements had no effect on the blood pressure. Therefore potassium from supplements appears to be just as bioavailable as potassium from food.
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