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(MCT)— “Do you really believe there are any nutrients left in our food?” a man asked me recently.

Yes I do, if you mean food that is freshly harvested. And those nutrients work pretty well…like they were put there for a good reason. Research seems to bear this out as well. Here are three cases in point:

Vitamin E is a potent antioxidant nutrient that occurs naturally in foods such as whole grains, nuts and seeds. It helps protect body cells from damage caused by free radicals—wayward oxygen molecules associated with the development of heart disease and cancer. Yet a recent large study in healthy men found that — instead of protecting against the development of prostate cancer — supplements of vitamin E significantly increased the risk.

What’s the deal? Health benefits of nutrients and other protective substances in our food often follow a U-shaped curve; too much may be as harmful as too little. And the right amount and balance of nutrients needed for optimal health is often the amount and balance found in real food.

In the case of vitamin E, the recommended daily intake for adults is 22.4 International Units (IU)—about the amount you would get in a tablespoon of wheat germ oil. The amount given in this study was 400 IUs. Was that too much?

Perhaps, say these researchers. They remind us that vitamins are “seemingly innocuous yet biologically active substances.” That means—in concentrated doses, they have the potential to cause harm. Or as food safety expert Carl Winters from the University of California at Davis likes to say, “The dose makes the poison.”

Broccoli is a cruciferous vegetable that contains natural substances found to protect against cancer. These substances are activated by enzymes that are also naturally present in broccoli. When we chew fresh broccoli, these enzymes are released to do their work and we reap the benefits of these healthful substances. Very convenient.

However, few of these beneficial enzymes are present in more processed foods such as broccoli supplements, according to a recent study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. Real food wins again.

And then there are “whole grains”—foods that contain the three major “parts” of a seed grain—the bran, germ, and endosperm. Within each of these parts are essential nutrients and plant chemicals that work together to provide optimal health benefits, including reduced risk for heart disease and metabolic syndrome, the condition that can lead to diabetes.

Studies on whole grains have found that eating the entire “whole” grain contributes more benefit than we would get from eating isolated parts such as wheat germ, bran, or supplements of nutrients found in grain foods. Again in this case, the “whole” seems to be much better (and simpler) than the sum of its parts.

©2011 The Monterey County Herald