Plants vs Pills: Why Functional Foods are Beating Supplements

Plants vs Pills: Why Functional Foods are Beating Supplements

What are functional foods and why are they becoming more popular than supplements? Learn about the risks of supplements and why functional foods are a safer, healthier and better value alternative.

What is a functional food?

Functional foods are food products or ingredients that offer health benefits that go beyond just their basic nutritional value. Functional foods don’t just provide us with the fuel we need to survive; instead, they actively promote well-being and can even help to prevent and manage certain diseases.

Examples of functional foods would include oily fish that’s rich in omega-3, bread that’s been fortified with added folic acid, probiotic yoghurts, fermented cabbage, and a range of fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds which are naturally rich in vitamins, minerals, fibre and bioactive compounds which can improve our health.

Functional Foods: Nature’s Medicines

Learn more about functional foods, how they can support better health and which functional foods are the most powerful in our companion article.

-> Read more

Functional foods vs. Supplements

The traditional approach to addressing nutrient deficiencies in our diets would be to take a supplement – but functional foods are rapidly becoming a more popular alternative to supplements for a few very important reasons:

1. Functional foods offer a wider range of benefits than supplements

Supplements often isolate an individual vitamin, mineral or bioactive compound into a pill, delivering a high dose of that specific nutrient. In contrast, functional foods contain a complex mix of natural nutrients and compounds. 

This means functional foods naturally act like a multi-supplement, delivering a wide variety of health-boosting nutrients in one go without needing to take multiple different pills to achieve the same effects. 

2. Functional foods can be more effective in our bodies than supplements

In addition, studies have found that the natural cocktail of nutrients and compounds found in functional foods work together in synergy in our bodies. This means functional foods are often more effective at supporting health in our bodies than supplements that contain just the isolated ‘active’ ingredients. 

This may be because our bodies have evolved to capture the health benefits of these natural, often plant-based foods, whereas synthetic supplements are less effective.

3. Functional foods are often better absorbed than supplements

Nutrients found in foods and eaten as part of a meal are often more ‘bioavailable’ to us than supplements. This means our bodies are better able to absorb more of the nutrients, and so take more benefit from functional foods where bioavailability is higher.

Again, this is likely because our bodies have evolved to unlock and absorb nutrition from our food, rather than from supplement tablets.

4. Functional foods are more nutritious and filling than supplements

Unlike taking a pill, functional foods are often also rich in protein or dietary fibre. This means functional foods can form a valuable part of your daily diet, helping to provide your body with the energy and nutrients it needs alongside delivering vitamins, minerals and active ingredients.

5. Functional foods are better value than supplements

Functional foods can appear at first glance to be more expensive than supplements. However, since they deliver a wider range of nutrients, those nutrients are more bioavailable to and effective in our bodies, and they can form part of healthy and filling meals, functional foods often represent better value than traditional supplement tablets. 

Why functional foods are safer than supplements

While both supplements and functional foods can deliver health benefits, it is slowly becoming clear that there are significant risks associated with taking supplements that are avoided with functional foods, such as:


In most countries, supplements and the companies that produce them are not strictly regulated. Suppliers do not have to prove that supplements are effective before selling them to customers, and studies have shown that unregulated supplement tablets often contain a much lower dose of nutrients than they claim to on the label. Worst of all, since the products are tablets, consumers have no way of telling if this is the case.

In contrast, functional food products are regulated under the same rules as other food products, and since these plants naturally contain the vitamins, minerals and other nutrients you’re after, you can rest assured you know what you’re getting.


Manufacturers of supplement tablets don’t have to prove their tablets are safe before selling them to customers. As a result, studies have found that unregulated supplement tablets are often tainted with harmful contaminants (such as heavy metals) which can actually contribute to diseases like cancer.

In contrast, functional food products are regulated under the same rules as other food products, ensuring they are safe and produced according to strict standards. As a result, customers are protected when eating functional foods in a way they are not when taking supplements.


Many vitamins, minerals and other nutrients which are good for us in the right amounts can actually cause us harm or even become toxic in high doses. For example, scientists caution that taking too much of vitamins A, B3, B6, C, D and E can all be harmful. The same goes for minerals, with iron, magnesium, zinc, selenium and phosphorus all potentially toxic at high levels.

Since they are artificially concentrated into pills, supplements can sometimes deliver too high a dose of specific nutrients, leading to nutrient imbalances and even damage to your body. In contrast, functional foods are made from naturally-occurring crops and so contain healthier, more moderate doses of nutrients that support your health rather than undermining it. 

Supplements can still be useful

There are some situations where supplements are a better choice than functional foods. For example, for people with severe allergies or who must eat very restrictive diets, functional foods may not be suitable and supplements may be a better alternative for balancing their nutrient intake.

However, in most cases functional foods are a more effective, healthier and more natural choice for most people looking to improve their health by supplementing their diet. 

Broccoli vs broccoli-based supplements

We’re obsessed with broccoli here – so you might think we’d be fans of broccoli-based supplements. But we’re not really – for a few reasons:

Why real broccoli beats broccoli-based supplements

Broccoli really is an under-appreciated vegetable. It’s a powerful source of a wide range of bioactive botanicals, including sulforaphane, quercetin, kampferol and indole-3-carbinol/diindolylmethane (DIM).

These molecules all work together to have a powerful positive effect on our health. However, broccoli-based supplements often extract just one of these active ingredients, making them less effective than eating real broccoli. They’re also unregulated, making them potentially unsafe.

Plus, as a bonus broccoli also contains vitamins C & B6, folic acid, potassium, phosphorous, iron, selenium, manganese, protein and dietary fibre – so it’s a multivitamin too! 

Meet our super-broccoli

(also known as GRextra)

But there’s one problem: real broccoli contains much fewer health-boosting bioactive botanicals than supplement tablets do. You’d need to eat a huge amount of broccoli each week to get the same boost as taking a daily tablet. 

That’s why we spent decades researching and developing our new ultra-healthy strain of super-broccoli (or as the scientists call it, ‘GRextra’).

It looks and tastes like a traditional supermarket broccoli, and contains all the same vitamins, minerals and fibre –  but it’s bio-fortified to deliver up to 5x more of key bioactive botanicals than a standard broccoli.

This makes our super-broccoli uniquely powerful functional food which combines  the power of a pill with the safety, effectiveness and broad health benefits of a plant. It’s the best of both worlds, without any of the downsides.

Perhaps that’s why it’s the first source of sulforaphane to be patented for blood sugar support!  (Patent #EP3313425B1)

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