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What’s Missing from Multi-Vitamin Supplements?

January 2005

By Elizabeth Wagner, ND

The Role of Flavonoids and Carotenoids

Luteolin, a flavonoid found in parsley, artichoke, basil, celery, and other foods, has been found to actively scavenge free radicals.42 Perilla leaf, one of the richest sources of luteolin, is known to inhibit inflammation, allergic response, and the production of tumor necrosis factor-alpha.43 In studies involving human cancer cell lines, luteolin greatly sensitized apoptotic cell death induced by tumor necrosis factor-alpha, suggesting a role for luteolin as an anti-cancer agent.44 Luteolin has also been demonstrated to be a potent inhibitor of thyroid cancer cell lines in vitro.45

Carotenoids are brightly colored pigments found in fruits and vegetables. Lutein, an antioxidant in the carotenoid family, is found in the macula, the central area of the eye’s retina. It may act as a filter to protect the macula from damaging forms of light. Lutein is associated with protection from age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in older adults.46

Lycopene, another carotenoid, is a potent antioxidant found in its highest concentrations in tomato products. Lycopene has been found to offer protection from prostate cancer, the second leading cause of cancer death in men,47 as well as from other cancers such as breast cancer.48 High intake of lycopene has been associated with a reduced risk for heart disease,49 and also helps prevent LDL oxidation.50


The various colors of fruits and vegetables help to promote optimal health, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).72

By choosing a variety of colors, people are more likely to consume the recommended five to nine daily servings of fruits and vegetables. Red foods such as tomato, pink grapefruit, and watermelon contain the powerful antioxidant lycopene, which has demonstrated benefits for fighting heart disease and cancer. Green foods such as spinach, kale, and collards contain the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin, which help protect eye health. The cruciferous vegetables contain several phytochemicals that help prevent cancer. Orange and yellow foods provide vitamin C, beta-carotene, and folate, helping to protect immune and heart health. Blue and purple foods offer proanthocyanadins, powerful antioxidants that protect eye health and help defend the body from carcinogens. White vegetables such as onions, garlic, and leeks contain compounds such as allicin, known to help lower cholesterol and blood pressure. The CDC recommends that when it comes to fruits and vegetables, people should seek not only abundant quantity but also the full spectrum of colors.

Fruits Rich in Antioxidants

Rich in vitamins, fiber, and phytochemicals, fruits are an excellent source of antioxidants12 and may provide protection from cancer by inhibiting angiogenesis.51 Current research suggests that some of the most beneficial health-promoting fruits are blueberries, bilberries, blackberries, cranberries, elderberries, cherries, plums, persimmons, and grapes.

Blueberries have been found to possess powerful antioxidant effects, as measured by their capacity to absorb oxygen radicals.51 In one animal study, supplementation with blueberry extract prevented memory loss associated with brain aging.52 Bilberry is a close relative of the American blueberry. Its ripe berries are a rich source of flavonoids that improve microcapillary circulation, decrease capillary permeability and fragility, and inhibit platelet aggregation.53 Bilberry consumption has been associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and with improved visual function.54 Bilberry has also been reported to lower blood glucose levels and to prevent diabetic retinopathy.53

Blackberry extract has been used as a traditional herbal treatment for diabetes.55 In animal models, blackberry extract has demonstrated protective effects against inflammation56 and endotoxins.57 Cranberry has long been known for its efficacy in preventing urinary tract infections.58 Recent research indicates that cranberry may also inhibit the proliferation of certain human tumor cell lines.59 Elderberry extract has been used for centuries to treat colds, flu, sinusitis, and viral infections. Contemporary research confirms its efficacy in supporting a healthy immune system, and suggests possible applications for its use in supporting immune health in people who have cancer or the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).60


Plants such as fruits, vegetables, and green tea are rich sources of powerful antioxidants called flavonoids. Because oxidative stress is thought to play a role in dementia, French scientists investigated whether dietary intake of flavonoids could offer a protective effect.75

A group of 1,367 subjects over the age of 65 was followed for five years. A questionnaire was used to evaluate their intake of flavonoids. Those who consumed the most flavonoids experienced a 51% lower relative risk of developing dementia than those who consumed the least amount. Since fruits, vegetables, and green tea are rich in flavonoids, these foods may be helpful in preventing dementia.

Cherry fruit has been used as a folk remedy for gout for many years. Human research indicates that cherries lower plasma levels of urate, a metabolic marker that is elevated in gout.61 Cherry consumption has also been found to lower plasma levels of C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation.61 Plums are a potent source of antioxidant activity, with one serving providing antioxidant protection equivalent to 144-889 mg of vitamin C.62 Persimmon fruit has demonstrated antioxidant and cholesterol-lowering effects in animal studies,63 and components of its extract have shown cytotoxic activity against human carcinoma cells.64 A rich source of dietary fiber, phenolic compounds, minerals, and trace elements, persimmon has been proposed as a valuable component of an anti-atherosclerotic diet.65

Grape seed extract possesses powerful antioxidant effects that protect the body from premature aging and disease.66 Grape seed contains proanthocyanidins, beneficial polyphenol substances whose effects include promoting youthful skin, supporting joint flexibility, and improving vision.66 The proanthocyanidins in grape seed extract may improve blood circulation by strengthening capillaries, arteries, and veins.66

Choosing a Multi-Nutrient Formula

While the market is flooded with multi-nutrient formulas, few stand up to a careful analysis of purity and potency. Many formulas contain only the US government’s recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of vitamins. While the RDA may be sufficient to prevent diseases such as scurvy, extensive studies have demonstrated that promoting optimal health requires nutrients in amounts that far exceed the RDA. Additionally, many of today’s multi-vitamin supplements use components that are inferior in quality compared to the pharmaceutical-grade nutrients used in premium products.

Research also shows that the body more readily uses certain forms of vitamins and minerals than others. Many vitamin combinations on the market today use the cheapest available forms of vitamins and minerals. These are difficult for the body to absorb and use, and thus provide only marginal nutritional support. When choosing a multi-vitamin product, it is advisable to seek not only high potencies of nutrients, but also formulations designed for optimal absorption and use by the body.

Vitamins and minerals play crucial roles in optimizing health and preventing disease, through mechanisms as diverse as maintaining normal homocysteine levels and reducing the occurrence of damaging glycation reactions.


To determine the relationship between vegetable and fruit intake and cancer risk, scientists at the World Cancer Research Fund in London, England, reviewed over 200 human epidemiological studies and 22 animal studies.76 They found evidence for a protective effect of greater fruit and vegetable consumption against cancers of the stomach, esophagus, lung, oral cavity and pharynx, endometrium, pancreas, and colon.

The types of foods that most often appeared to be protective against cancer were raw vegetables, including those in the allium family (onions, garlic, chives, leeks, and shallots), carrots, green vegetables, cruciferous vegetables, and tomatoes. The scientists noted that numerous substances in fruits and vegetables may confer cancer protection, including dithiolethiones, isothiocyanates, indole-3-carbinol, allium compounds, isoflavones, protease inhibitors, saponins, phytosterols, vitamin C, D-limonene, lutein, folic acid, beta-carotene, lycopene, selenium, vitamin E, flavonoids, and dietary fiber. The researchers also noted other possible health effects of increased fruit and vegetable consumption, including benefits against cardiovascular disease, diabetes, stroke, obesity, diverticulosis, and cataracts.

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