The Health Benefits of Wholefoods Part 2.

        “The Whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” (Aristotle)


The futility of isolating a single constituent from a phytochemical mixture is becoming more apparent. Our affluent and indulgent lifestyles in the West are turning our bodies into the ideal “host” for chronic diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes. Our quick-fix culture has driven the explosion in the number of dietary supplements available where plant compounds are available in pill form in levels that would be impossible to achieve through diet alone. But, the tide is turning. Good old-fashioned eating is back and here’s why…..


Plant compounds behave differently in whole foods and when isolated into a purified/ concentrated form

The latest research, which includes clinical trials, has shown that dietary supplements do not have the same health benefits as a diet rich in fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices, because phytochemicals behave differently in whole foods compared with a concentrated “pill” form.  

There have been some high-profile failures of single-phytochemical clinical trials, such as vitamin C, α-tocopherol (vitamin E) and β-carotene. Loss of bioavailability (how well the plant compounds are absorbed by the body) and undesirable effects of single compounds at high levels, including toxicity (more on that later) all contributed to the poor results.

The futility of isolating a single constituent from a phytochemical mixture is becoming more apparent

Mounting evidence is confirming that isolating a single compound from a plant-based food and concentrating it to very high levels that would be impossible to achieve through the diet, is not as effective as combinations of lower, less toxic doses of each compound.

Antioxidants have been a buzz-word in the food, health and beauty industries for years, and plants are loaded with them — some more than others.  Over the last few years, the number of athletes taking antioxidant supplements has increased dramatically, despite a lack of evidence for their benefit.  Excessive exercise is known to generate reactive forms of oxygen, which can damage cells in the body, a state known as oxidative stress. On the face of it, antioxidant supplementation to soak up those pesky free-radicals would seem a good idea, leading to decreased muscle damage, improved performance and, in theory, increased life-span. However, under certain conditions and when given in high doses, antioxidants can switch to become pro-oxidants and actually set about damaging DNA, something which does not happen when antioxidants are consumed via the wholefoods route.

The pill-taking approach does not take into account the fact that we are all different.  The biochemistry of the individual, together with dose and duration, is important, and this is the reason why scientific studies with antioxidant supplements have shown such variability. It is possible that some individuals will benefit from antioxidant supplementation, but this is highly dependent on the starting point.  Each person’s levels of oxidative stress will be different depending on their diet and individual metabolism. Young individuals and athletes tend to have lower levels of oxidative stress and supplementing these healthy individuals may end up being harmful (see above).  However, athletes who don’t consume a balanced diet and individuals who show high levels of oxidative stress under “normal” i.e. non-exercise conditions or individuals who develop high levels of oxidative stress after exercise may benefit from antioxidant supplementation.  Other important considerations are the type of exercise (aerobic or anaerobic), the duration of exercise, weather conditions, and when the supplement is given — before or after a race, for example. The only way to approach this is through personalised monitoring and tailoring a diet to an individual’s needs, but we don’t have the technology for this. Yet.


A study published last year in the journal “Nutrition” reviewed the evidence for and against antioxidant supplementation in sports and concluded that “whole foods, rather than capsules, contain antioxidants in natural ratios and proportions which may act in synergy to optimise the antioxidant effect.” In simple terms, the antioxidant health benefits are attributable to the complex mixture, not just one plant compound.  Pills are unable to mimic the natural balance of these phytochemicals present in wholefoods.  

Another example of the importance of the complex mixture of phytochemicals in wholefoods was demonstrated in a recent study that examined the effect of whole ginger extract on cancerous tumour growth.  There have been several lab-based studies on the ability of ginger compounds to reduce tumour growth in different types of cancer. However, this particular study showed that whole ginger extract was found to be 40% more effective at inhibiting mouse prostate cancer tumour growth than an artificial mix of the most important phytochemicals from ginger, demonstrating that:

  • the minor constituents of ginger are also important
  • the phytochemicals in ginger act synergistically and additively for maximum effectiveness
  • the maximum effect is achieved when the active compounds from ginger are present in their natural setting (i.e. the plant matrix/ as a wholefood).

One of the key findings from this study was that whole ginger extract was much more bioavailable than the artificial mixture of active compounds, which shows that the complex mix of plant compounds in ginger are acting together to enable better absorption by the body. I’ll be touching on the importance of bioavailability again in Part 3.

Studies like the above on whole ginger extract are still relatively few and far between, and are a long way from clinical trials in humans, but the field is gaining in momentum as the futility of isolating a single constituent from a phytochemical mixture is becoming more apparent.


Helen Saini, PhD.

Read Part 3 of this blog at

Selected References


Blot WJ, et al. (1993). Nutrition intervention trials in Linxian, China: supplementation with specific vitamin/mineral combinations, cancer incidence, and disease-specific mortality in the general population. J Natl Cancer Inst. Sep 15; 85(18):1483-92.

Gundala SR, et al. (2014). Enterohepatic recirculation of bioactive ginger phytochemicals is associated with enhanced tumour growth-inhibitory activity of ginger extract. Carcinogenesis. Jun; 35(6):1320-9. doi: 10.1093/carcin/bgu011. Epub 2014 Jan 15.


Karna P,. et al. (2012). Benefits of whole ginger extract in prostate cancer. Br J Nutr.  Feb; 107(4):473-84. doi: 10.1017/S0007114511003308. Epub 2011 Aug 18.


Liu RH. (2003). Health benefits of fruit and vegetables are from additive and synergistic combinations of phytochemicals. Am J Clin Nutr. Sep; 78(3 Suppl.): 517S-520S.


Pingitore A, et al. (2015). Exercise and oxidative stress: potential effects of antioxidant dietary strategies in sports. Nutrition. Jul-Aug; 31(7-8):916-22. doi: 10.1016/j.nut.2015.02.005. Epub. 2015 Feb 19.


Salonen JT, et al. (2000). Antioxidant Supplementation in Atherosclerosis Prevention (ASAP) study: a randomized trial of the effect of vitamins E and C on 3-year progression of carotid atherosclerosis. J Intern Med. 2000 Nov; 248(5):377-86.