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This simple fried rice recipe is a tasty way to obtain our vitamins.

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Eating is supposed to be simple, yet it seems to get more complicated by the day. How many times a week do we hear or read “eat this, don’t eat that?” Whether it’s a doctor, nutritionist, magazine or a food label, everyone has an opinion. One thing we all agree upon, is that we need a certain set of nutrients to maintain overall health, healing and energy.

I’m fairly certain that if I added up the time and money I’ve spent on choosing and buying supplements, I would have calculated at least a week to take a really lavish vacation. That is, if I could get all that time and loot back.

The discovery of vitamins in food led to the extraordinary realization that they could not only be isolated from the foods in which they’re naturally found, but synthesized in a lab to form supplements. A little vitamin B can help with a twitching eyelid. Iron supplements can cure anemia. There is a world of natural remedies and thousands of pills, tonics and tinctures that can work magic when they replenish our vitamin and mineral levels. Which are worth the time and money and which ones should we stop buying and start our vacation fund instead?

Ever wonder why your tinkle might be a shade more of a sunshiny yellow than usual when you take a B vitamin or eat some nutritional yeast? While it may make us feel accomplished to take vitamins and see changes in our bods, that bright yellow tinge may simply be a sign that we’re excreting the vitamin we spent a ton of time and money on. We could not only be flushing away these vitamins that aren’t as bioavailable as hoped, but the added colors, fillers, whiteners and anti-caking agents might be doing more harm than good.

Sullied SoilIn an ideal world, we would all eat well, crave less and get all the nutrients we need from the foods we eat without added supplements. With the agriculture on which we fervently rely wreaking havoc on the soil, this, by most accounts, is no longer possible. While natural foods are still nutritious, the amount of certain vitamins and minerals in these foods have decreased substantially in the last several decades.

Dr. Mark Hyman discusses this chronic soil depletion in his book “Food Fix.” He attributes the detriment of our soil’s microbiology to the pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and fertilizers we apply to our soil and says that we are over-tilling it each year.

Hyman is quoted in a Mindbodygreen podcast: “The nutritional density of plant foods is 50 percent less than it was 50 years ago. … So in 1970, broccoli was more than twice as nutritious as it is today.”

Our goal as humans is to stay healthy, so to solve this problem, many of us turn to supplements. One question I get (and ask) over and over again is “which one shall I take?” It’s as confusing as choosing a breakfast cereal — if not more. There are hundreds of players in the supplement space whose label all promise to be the best, most natural, highest quality product. When we take cost into consideration, many of us get duped into buying products that are filled (literally) with junk.

Cancerous Colors

I was horrified to see that the prenatal vitamin prescribed to me by my doctor was bright blue and laced with food coloring. Why we would care what color something is that we are going to swallow and forget as quickly as possible is beyond me, but these food colorings (all the colors of the rainbow) defeat the purpose of taking our vitamins.

The FDA says that these pills are colored to offset a loss of the nutrients due to light, air and temperature shifts, moisture and other conditions, but they also offset our health. As red food coloring is being investigated in connection with kids’ hyperactivity disorder, I would steer clear of this for that reason alone, not to mention its potential link to cancers.

Something’s Fishy

Fish oils have been all the rage for years. We know to steer clear of too many mercury-containing fish like swordfish and tuna in our diet, but what’s in our fish oil supplements? High levels of mercury, lead and chemicals like PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) have been linked to some fish oil supplements, so check for the sources of the fish oil you take and focus on a diet naturally high in omega-3s.

Vitamins are supposed to be healthy, but some contain fillers like hydrogenated oils, sunflower and soybean oils, which simply raise our omega-6 levels (something many of us don’t need more of) and contribute to our bad cholesterol levels.

Filler Fodder

It’s difficult to decipher what’s good and what’s bad when we may be taking things that sound the same. Magnesium for example is a naturally occurring mineral that we may need to supplement for various reasons. Magnesium silicate, though it sounds innocuously similar, is actually a powder that resembles the chemical make-up of asbestos. When it’s hydrated, it’s known as talc and is the same thing you might find in your deodorant. When mined, it can sometimes be contaminated with asbestos, but is often used as an anticaking agent in supplements. Even though talc has been deemed asbestos-free since the 1970s, it’s been linked to ovarian cancer when ingested. Just say no to this additive in your supplement.

Titanium dioxide is often used as a whitening agent in our pills, but it’s recently been deemed as unsafe by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), as it has been associated with negative effects on immunity and reproductive health. It has been linked to kidney damage in mice and inflammation in the small intestine. Often found not only in supplements and other pills, but in cosmetics as well, this is one ingredient to avoid.

Gimme the gummies

For those of us who are sick and tired of swallowing fistfuls of pills, we may turn to gummy vitamins. Gummies are not only full of artificial colorings, glycerin, gelatin and corn starch, but they’re laced with sugar or artificial sweeteners or even sugar alcohols, which can contribute to digestive issues. Since our body needs to use our existing stores of nutrients to process sweeteners, we may end up with lower nutrient levels than we started with after popping the gummies. Shelf life varies for these gummy guys, so their nutritional potency may decrease even over a short period of shelf time, leaving us to absorb fewer vitamins than we thought we were going to get. Gummies that are flavored with citric acid, sugar or artificial sweeteners can also sabotage dental health.

Quality Quiz

Just like all calories are not created equal (otherwise I would be found sipping malted milkshakes under a willow tree all day long), neither are vitamins. Very often there are natural versions of a vitamin or mineral and then there’s the synthetic version that has a new, albeit similar, name.

The majority of time, we are able to assimilate nutrients to a greater extent when they’re packaged the way in which nature intended — in a naturally occurring food source. This isn’t always the case thanks to anti-nutrients like oxalates, lectins and alkaloids, but none of these sabotage us like today’s processed food stuffs.

Synthesized vitamins, on the other hand, are most often not as “bioavailable” or as readily absorbable as their more natural counterparts. Have you ever seen those words on the labels that, in parentheses, cite a certain vitamin? Have you ever wondered why that particular vitamin has so many names?

In nature, vitamin B1 is called thiamine. Synthesized thiamine is often called “thiamine mononitrate (vitamin B1)” on labels. Thiamine mononitrate is human-made vitamin B1 and, to make a long story short, it’s not as absorbable as its natural counterpart. It does, however, make processed foods seem heathy. (Vitamins are a good thing, after all, and isn’t “more” better?)

Supplements can be game-changing lifesavers, but make sure that what you’re taking is a good, if not great, quality. Try to get away from processed foods that are laced with supplements (and labeled “fortified” or “enriched”), as they contain those synthesized vitamins that we just don’t need.

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Simple (& Healthy) Fried Rice

Ingredients

2 tablespoons sesame oil

2 carrots, diced

3 green onions, chopped; save some green for garnish

3 cloves garlic, crushed

2 tablespoons minced ginger

2 cups cooked brown rice (organic, California for fewest heavy metals)

¾ cup frozen peas

¼ cup chopped red cabbage

½ tablespoon unsalted butter

2 large eggs (beaten)

2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce, or to taste

Black pepper, to taste

Method

In a large wok or skillet, heat 2 tablespoons oil, add carrots and whites of the green onions. Cook until golden brown, about 3 minutes.

Add garlic and ginger and cook, stirring about 1 minute.

Add rice, peas, red cabbage and mix.

Push to the side, melt butter and add beaten eggs, scrambling on one side of the pan.

When eggs are mostly cooked, start to add into rice mixture.

Add soy sauce, stirring until heated through.

Season with pepper and stir in the remaining green onions, or use to top.

Serve as a side or with a protein and additional veggie.

Katharine A. Jameson, a certified nutrition counselor who grew up in Williamsville and Townshend, writes about food and health for Vermont News & Media. For more tricks, tips and hacks, find her on Instagram:

@foodforthoughtwithkat