Whether from a health condition, a deficiency or due to diet, shoppers know taking a supplement is a great way to provide the additional nutrients they may lack. But do they also know the advantages that come with taking a supplement derived only from plants? With a rising trend in transparency and organic initiatives, shoppers may benefit more than ever by understanding what exactly makes these supplements special.
Why Supplement With Plants?
While many supplements are made synthetically using chemical processes that extract or isolate a particular nutrient to provide a concentrated supplement, plant-based supplements are derived from whole foods, namely fruits, vegetables and grains. Plant-based supplements work through interaction with micronutrients and metabolites found in the plant. These nutrients tend to work together to maximize their efficacy.
Vitamin C, for example, is found and isolated for synthetic supplements from oranges. It is identical to the vitamin C derived from plant sources. According to George Obikoya, PhD, in an article titled “Natural Vitamin Vs. Synthetic,” “When vitamin C was first isolated and produced in a supplement form, we did not know about bioflavonoids.” Bioflavonoids, which are a large class of antioxidants, were later found to always accompany vitamin C in nature and were essential for the absorption of the vitamin. Obikoya indicated that bioavailability is increased by 30% with the presence of bioflavonoids and suggested that plant-derived supplements are therefore the better form to take.
In addition, Obikoya states vitamin E when derived from vegetable oils and other natural sources is in the d-form, while the synthetic is in the dl-form, a combination of d-and l-forms. Due to the human body being able to use only the d-form, the l-form, which does not have any known benefits, is simply excreted by the body and only half of the effective dosage is then obtained. For those thinking plant-derived supplements are simply a new trend that will die out in just a few years, think again.
Trisha Sugarek MacDonald, BS, MS, senior director of research and development/national educator at Bluebonnet Nutrition Corp., based in Sugar Land, TX, says the company has seen many trends in its 26 years of operation but the industry is indeed moving towards “cost-effective” plant-based supplements because “they are also cleaner, safer and preserve animal life.”
Proteins are made of chains that include 20 amino acids. Eleven are considered non-essential because they are synthesized within the body and the remaining nine are considered essential because they are not synthesized in the body and are needed daily from sources such as food and dietary supplements. The body cannot store excess amino acids for future use, so a lack in any of the essential amino acids causes the body to get what it needs by searching and breaking down protein from other sources, such as muscle tissue. A deficiency in an essential amino acid can also lead to a decrease in one’s immune response, fatigue and changes to skin texture (1).
Good examples of plant-derived sources for protein are spirulina and hemp seeds since they contain “phytonutrients that are not found in synthetic or marine/animal-derived supplements,” says Scarlett Blandon, MS, RDN, director of nutrition and research at Axiom Foods, based in Los Angeles, CA. “Phytonutrients are essential because they provide antioxidant/anti-inflammatory properties.” Spirulina, a biomass of cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) contains the essential amino acid phenylalanine. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, phenylalanine is found in three forms, L-phenylalanine, the natural form found in proteins, D-phenylalanine, made in a laboratory, and DL-phenylalanine, a combination of the two that is also made in a laboratory. When present in the body, phenylalanine is changed into tyrosine, which is another amino acid that makes proteins within the body, as well as thyroid hormones and brain chemicals such as epinephrine, norepinephrine, and L-dopa. Blandon also states, “In one 20-calorie tablespoon of spirulina powder, you get 4 g protein, vitamins B1, B2, B3, copper, iron, magnesium and other minerals as well as omegas, antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds.” Additional health benefits associated with spirulina include lowering cholesterol levels and reducing blood pressure.
Hemp, which is a distinct variety from the plant Cannabis Sativa, has little to no measurable levels of the psychoactive compound tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and none of its side effects (2). Though low in lysine, hemp, particularly the seeds, contains all nine essential amino acids and is considered one of nature’s best sources for plant-based proteins (2). Hemp powder, which is made from the seeds, is easy to digest and “is also an excellent source of fiber, iron and magnesium,” said Zach Adelman, founder and CEO of Navitas Organics, based in Novato, CA. Hemp proteins also provide the essential fatty acids omega-3 and omega-6 in a 3:1 ratio, as well as the hard-to-get gamma linolenic acid (GLA) — a plant-derived omega-6 that is metabolized differently and associated with supporting heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, skin allergies, premenstrual syndrome (PMS), breast pain and much more (2).
Pea protein is growing in popularity since it is hypoallergenic — containing no gluten or dairy — and doesn’t cause bloating like many protein powders (6). Of the essential amino acids needed in the body, pea protein contains quite a few. It is particularly high in arginine (important for blood flow and nitric oxide levels), lysine (converts fatty acids into energy, helps to lower cholesterol, helps the body absorb calcium, and helps in the formation of collagen) and phenylalanine (makes proteins and brain chemicals). Pea proteins even meet vegetarian and vegan nutritional needs, with about 85% protein content. Besides the ability to build muscle, pea protein can lower levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin, by producing a large amount of peptides that delay the emptying of the stomach and the secretion of ghrelin (6). In small studies done in Canada, pea proteins have been suggested to regulate blood sugar, decrease risk of kidney disease and support a healthy heart.
For those thinking plant-derived supplements are simply a new trend that will die out, think again.
Like pea proteins, brown rice is considered to be hypoallergenic and contains proteins, natural starches and bran, its natural fiber content. Brown rice is considered high in sulfur-containing amino acids, such as cysteine (an essential part of the antioxidant compound glutathione and used to produce biotin, heparin, coenzyme A and the amino acid taurine) and methionine (plays a part in the growth of new blood vessels), but low in lysine. In a double-blind, placebo controlled clinical trial, a brown rice protein supplement was tested against the effects of a whey protein isolate. The study, which contained 24 college males who were resistance training, allowed the subjects to train for 3 days a week for 8 weeks. At the end of the study, the brown rice protein was shown to be just as effective as whey protein in supplementing the body and in exercise performance (7).
Like amino acids, the human body makes a number of non-essential fatty acids, but also needs essential fatty acids such as omega-3 and omega-6. Omega-3s are important because they are needed for cell membranes that affect the functions of cell receptors, to bind to receptors in cells that regulate genetic function and hormones that regulate blood clotting, inflammation, contraction and relaxation of artery walls (3). Omega-3 fatty acids are also beneficial to the heart, particularly improving blood vessel functions, blood pressure and heart rates, and when taken in a high dose, lowering triglycerides. Similar to omega-3s, omega-6s play a crucial role in brain function, growth and development. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, omega-6s also help stimulate skin and hair growth, maintain bone health, regulate metabolism and maintain the reproductive system.
As stated before, hemp, specifically the oil of the seed, contains healthy doses of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. For consumers wary of trying hemp, another oil to consider that many American consumers may not be aware of is algal oil. Derived directly from algae, it has no risk of ocean-borne contaminants and also “provides plant-based [docosahexaenoic acid] DHA and non-cannabis cannabimimetics such as beta-caryophyllene from clove,” states Jade Beutler, CEO, Emerald Health Bioceuticals, based in San Diego, CA. DHA, a type of omega-3 fatty acid, is essential for the growth and functional development of the brain in infants and the maintenance of normal brain function in adults. To ensure and prove the quality of algal oil as a fatty acid, researchers evaluated the effects of the oil to cooked salmon in a 2-week study that was published in the American Journal of Dietetic Association titled “Algal Oil Capsules and Cooked Salmon: Nutritionally Equivalent Sources of Docosahexaenoic Acid.” Reseachers found at the end of the study, that algal oil’s DHA capsules were bioequivalent to cooked salmon in providing DHA to plasma and red blood cells, as well as being a safe and convenient source of non-fish-derived DHA. “A vegetable-based DHA derived from marine algae [also contains] a natural triglyceride form instead of the common synthetic ethyl ester form, which often becomes oxidized/rancid,” states MacDonald. Triglycerides, made of 3 fatty acids, attach to a glycerol backbone, whereas ethyl esters are artificially created in a lab by breaking the bond between fatty acids and are attached instead to a molecule of ethanol. In its natural form, triglycerides have much greater bioavailability than ethyl esters, since they can be quickly absorbed and utilized by the body while ethyl esters must be broken down differently to remove the ethanol bond from the fatty acid and then attach to a glycerol to form a triglyceride in order to be absorbed.
Once renowned as part of a toy that grew green hair on top of a clay pet, chia seeds are now known for their nutritional value. Made from the edible seed of the Salvia hispanica plant, up to 60% of chia seed oil contains omega-3 fatty acids. “By weight, chia actually contains 8x the omega-3s of salmon,” states Adelman. Chia seeds also contain vitamins A, B, E and D, but most importantly they contain the essential fatty acids alpha-linolenic and linoleic acid; mucin; strontium — rich sources of antioxidants that can prevent cell damage that are caused by oxidation from free radicals. By consuming a one ounce (28 g) serving of chia, shoppers will ingest 0.1 mg of copper, 0.6 mg of manganese, 1 mg of zinc, 44.8 mgs of potassium, 177 mg of calcium, 265 mg of phosphorus, 4.4 g of protein, 8.6 g of fat, 10.6 g of fiber, 12.3 g of carbohydrates and 137 calories (4).
One of the richest sources of fatty acid is flaxseed oil, since it contains omega-3s in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) as well as omega-6s. Flaxseed oil in small studies has shown to improve the symptoms of dry eye in people with Sjogren’s syndrome, an autoimmune condition that causes the immune system to attack the glands that produces moisture (5). While more research is needed, flax seed oil has also been included in small studies that suggest it may be helpful in inhibiting the growth of breast tumors, though exactly how is under study, the oil’s ALA content has been considered.
According to the Linus Pauling Institute, a tablespoon of sunflower oil contains almost 9 g of linoleic acid, an omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid that is converted to gamma-linolenic acid then broken down further to arachiconic acid (AA), a starting material in the synthesis of substances that are essential to the brain, liver and organs. Though your body does indeed require AA, the American Heart Association states too much of this nutrient can increase the risk of heart disease.
Additional Beneficial Sources
Turmeric, suggests Blandon, is another plant-derived supplement if looking for relief from an inflammation or autoimmune disorders. Typically used as a culinary spice, turmeric has the highest concentration of curcumin. Curcumin, an antioxidant, is the pigment that gives turmeric its yellow-orange color and has been used in both Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine to treat digestive and liver problems, and skin diseases (9). Additionally, curcumin has the ability to lower the levels of enzymes that cause inflammation and stops platelets from clumping together to form blood clots (8). Another source Blandon suggests is “white-willow bark, a plant-derived substance that serves as a pain and fever reducer which aspirin is now derived from.” It is believed salicin, a chemical found in willow bark, may be responsible for this effect, however there are several components that may contribute, including plant chemicals called polyphenols and flavonoids (9). Both chemicals have antioxidant, antiseptic, fever-reducing and immune boosting properties (9). “[As] it turns out [there are also] many non-cannabis, herbal and botanicals such as peony, clove and magnolia [that] also support the ECS [endocannabinoid system],” states Beutler. The endocannabinoid system is a group of small molecules that activate cannabinoid receptors whose job it is to transmit information of changing conditions to cells, which will then start a cellular response.
Delivery Format & Certifications
When shoppers are on the hunt for a soft gel or capsule, they should look for a plant-based/vegan capsule or softgel in order to experience the full benefit of the content being “optimally absorbed and assimilated into [the] body for immediate results,” states MacDonald. MacDonald also suggests going for a plant-based fiber called vegetable cellulose since “these capsules outperform gelatin (animal sourced) capsules, specifically for moisture sensitive ingredients, but they are also perfect for maximum assimilation and absorption since they allow for immediate release in the gut.”
“[While] some supplements are better to be delivered [in] a capsule format, others do better in a powder or liquid,” states Blandon. “For example, fresh pressed turmeric root has way more health benefits than a turmeric capsule [and a] protein powder is way more ideal than a protein capsule based off serving size.”
Of course when choosing a delivery method, it will always come down to one’s personal preferences, convenience and taste.
An important aspect to check is “for clean labels without fillers, synthetics or added artificial components,” states Blandon. “Make sure the supplement is either GRAS certified or sustainably harvested in a way that it can be traced back to the roots with high integrity and a clean processing procedure. Non-GMO Project Verified, manufactured in a GMP certified facility, NSF Certified or USP certified,” she adds, as this ensures that what is promoted on the label is what is actually in the product.
Stuart Tomc, VP of human nutrition at CV Sciences based in San Diego, CA, adds “Who really thinks that gluten-free water ever had any gluten in the first place? In today’s buyer-beware marketplace, retailers and consumers should demand seeing third-party certificates of analysis verifying potency and purity, especially with an ingredient as controversial as agricultural hemp-derived CBD.”
A company’s certification may also ensure the supplement consumers are looking for is reputable. “We recently became a certified B-Corp company,” states Adelman. “[This] means we are held to rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency.” WF
1. B. Alberts, et al., Molecular Biology of the Cell. 4th edition. (Garland Science, New York, NY, 2002). Available at www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK26911, accessed Aug. 18, 2016.
2. Draxe, “Hemp Protein Powder: The Perfect Plant-Based Protein,” https://draxe.com/hemp-protein-powder/, accessed October 4, 2017.
3. Harvard T.H. Chan, “Omega-3 Fatty Acids: An Essential Contribution,” https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/omega-3-fats/, accessed October 4, 2017.
4. Draxe, “9 Chia Seeds Benefits + Side Effects,” https://draxe.com/chia-seeds-benefits-side-effects/, accessed October 4, 2017.
5. University of Maryland Medical Center, “Flaxseed oil,” June 22, 2015, http://www.umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/supplement/flaxseed-oil, accessed October 5, 2017.
6. Draxe, “Pea Protein: The Non-Dairy Muscle Builder (that Also Boosts Heart Health),” accessed October 5, 2017.
7. Jordan M Joy, et al., “The effects of 8 weeks of whey or rice protein supplementation on body composition and exercise performance,” Nutrition Journal, June 2013, available at https://nutritionj.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1475-2891-12-86, accessed October 5, 2017.
8. University of Maryland Medical Center, “Turmeric,” June 26, 2014, http://www.umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/herb/turmeric, accessed October 5, 2017.
9. University of Maryland Medical Center, “Willow bark,” August 5, 2015, accessed October 5, 2017.
Published in WholeFoods Magazine November 2017