15 Jun Natural vs Synthetic Vitamins: The Great Debate
We take an indepth look at what to consider before choosing your vitamin brand.
Always take your vitamins, say the grannies and doctors the world around. But questions begin to surface: “Which ones?” “And how many?” and “Don’t I get enough of this from my food?”
In our race to become such a highly capable society and species, we’ve also inadvertently over-complicated something that once was quite simple. Nature; food, water and sun, was once our only source of nutrients. But with the degradation of soil quality and increasingly demanding careers and lives, scientists and pharmaceutical companies have figured out how to offer us the nutrients we’re missing in the form of a pill. Now that we’re returning to a period of seeking alignment with nature the inquiries into how our bodies absorb these vitamins, whether we even need them and whether it is all just good marketing are all valid concerns.
But the landscape of unraveling some of the questions around whether man-made or nature-made vitamins are better can feel like quite a complex and contradictory road. Not every vitamin can be painted with the same parameters because they’re not all created equal and our bodies respond differently to each one.
ARE VITAMINS AS SIMPLE AS A, B, C?
In their most basic form there are 13 vitamins which our bodies require for optimal health (A, B1, B2, B3, B6, B12, folate, biotin, pantothenate, C, D, E and K). In their natural state, each vitamin is made up of a complex assimilation of compounds and enzymes, co-enzymes, co-factors and transporters. These work together with other compounds in your body in a synergistic manner, which is what strengthens a natural vitamins bioavailability.
When it comes to Vitamin C, scientists argue its primary compound can be extracted, yet many feel the extensive, although not currently agreed upon list of co-factors, are just as vital to the bioavailability. Dr. Ben Kim, a staunch advocate for natural vitamins only, argues that if you only ever ingested ascorbic acid, as your primary source for vitamin C, it would be like eating only the skin of the orange instead of the entire fruit.
THE ORIGINS OF ISOLATING AND SYNTHASISING VITAMINS
The origins to the inquiry into vitamin C dates back to the early 1700’s when a Royal Navy surgeon, James Lind, found that citrus fruits were able to cure scurvy in individuals. But of course this couldn’t be pinpointed on vitamin C alone. It was only in the early 1900’s when experimental animal studies with scurvy were conducted that results revealed that is was that fresh fruits and vegetables prevented scurvy.
Vitamin C itself was only isolated from citrus fruits in the early 1930’s, this was named hexuronic acid. Giving a guinea pigs hexuronic acid further showed that this too could stave off the scurvy effectively. Shortly after, hexuronic acid was renamed to ascorbic acid in order to accurately reflect its anti-scorbutic properties.
Once extracted and isolated, synthesising it was only a matter of years. While the chemical structure of isolated natural, food derived vitamin C vs its synthetic counterparts are identical, discussions around the comparative bioavailability are still hotly debated.
WHAT SYNTHETIC VS NATURAL VITAMINS MEAN FOR YOUR BODY
Ingesting vitamin C, or any other vitamin for that matter, in its isolated form doesn’t come without knock-on effects in the body.
HOW IT WORKS:
- Your body requires the other co-factors to fully absorb the vitamin to its maximum benefit. If you’re not ingesting them simultaneously the body will first try to assimilate the rest of the co-factors needed from other reserves in your tissue or from other foods you’re eating.
- If you don’t have sufficient reserves, this intelligent need to absorb the component of the vitamin you are ingesting can result in depletions of other necessary compounds before the excess is excreted. Generally speaking, synthetic vitamins won’t offer the entire spectrum, as the vitamin in its natural form would.
The above two points hold true for most vitamins and minerals.
According to this article, and the opinion of the president of a natural supplements company, Schiffer, modern pharmaceutical manufacture has successfully isolated the most useful and beneficial form of each vitamin, which can be processed by the body as effectively as the vitamers found in our food*
For a healthy individual getting in the basics quantities of each vitamin would seem sufficient. Yet, in individuals where specific conditions are prevalent due to sever vitamin deficiencies, taking the synthetic isolated form of this vitamin, can be highly effective, as seen with the scurvy guinea pigs of the 1930’s.
BASIC DIFFERENCES BETWEEN NATURAL AND SYNTHETIC
In looking at how natural and synthetic vitamins are different, a caveat should be added that different refers to the origin of the vitamin, not necessarily the nutritional value or effectiveness of the end resulting vitamin. Dr. Thomas Levy explains this concept very well in an analogy with sweeteners:
- Stevia is a natural sweetener sourced from plant.
- Aspartame is an entirely artificial sweetener produced in a lab that cannot be found in nature.
- However, sucrose can be extracted from food or it can be synthesized in a lab. The resulting sugar is the same and, providing that none of the trace elements are contaminated the laboratory-produced sucrose, both will produce the same outcome in baking (for example).
This is only true for some synthetically produced vitamins over their natural counter-parts.
CHARACTERISTICS OF NATURAL VITAMINS
- These are food supplements derived from wholefood sources like baobab powder, moringa, acerola cherry powder, spirulina.
- Complete in their bioavailability and therefore not taxing on the body
- Fully absorbed by the body because they function in a synergistic way
- Can be more costly
- In order to get in an equal dose much larger quantities of the natural vitamin source need to be consumed.
CHARACTERISTICS OF SYNTHETIC VITAMINS:
- They are manufactured in a laboratory through a bio-chemical process
- They are supplements that mimic the way a natural vitamin compound reacts in the body
- They are usually in an isolated form, also called isolated nutrients
- The active ingredient in synthetic vitamins is identical to that in the natural vitamin
- Usually less expensive because they can be mass produced
- A concentrated form of the vitamin allows for a smaller volume to be consumed
- Can lack the co-factors that allow the vitamin to be properly absorbed in the body
- Can place a physical tax on the body’s mineral supply in order to process the vitamin
Synthetic supplements don’t include ‘wholefood supplements’ made from concentrated, dehydrated foods.
UNDERSTANDING THE VITAMIN LABEL:
Unlike with medicines that undergo clinical trials and therefor adhere to pharmaceutical labeling regulations, vitamin supplements are currently far more loosely governed.
IMPORTANT TO THINGS TO NOTE:
- Vitamin supplements may be legally marketed as ‘natural’, as long as only 10% of the supplement is from the natural vitamin source. This means 90% can consist of the active compound from a synthetic source.
- There is no current regulation that requires dietary supplements like vitamins to prove their effectiveness, unlike with medicine. This doesn’t mean that some brands don’t do their research, but it is worth you doing yours as well.
- Sticking to dosage guidelines like the RDA (recommended daily allowance) is vital, because supplements can have increased quantities within them.
Much of the vitamin conversations out there create a somewhat misinformed outcry about these synthetic vitamins being 90% chemicals – as though chemical is synonymous with poison. Nature is rooted in chemical compounds. Just as a chemical doesn’t mean it’s toxic, so too being synthesised doesn’t mean it’s inferior. Synthesising the chemical compounds in vitamins can simply mean it’s being manufactured in a controlled environment. According to Nutrition expert, Professor Christine Rosenbloom, even natural vitamins contain some synthetic ingredients, and if they didn’t, they would be the size of golf balls.
Read the label and make sure what you’re supplementing your diet safely, but simultaneously don’t jump onto the ‘lab-manufactured equals harmful-to-my-health’ thinking.
NOTE THE DOSE
Higher dose supplements are not equal to high quality. A higher dose can place strain on the body in both assimilating the compounds required as well as processing on the liver. This is particularly true for fat soluble vitamins like Vitamin A. Stored in the liver, in large quantities it can reach toxic levels.
Recommended daily allowances are guidelines for a reason. Speak to your doctor if you have a condition that requires a higher dosage.
CAN WE REPLICATE IN A LAB WHAT NATURE MAKES HERSELF?
In its most eloquent and intelligent form, probably not. Nutrition from real foods offers a naturally aligned bioavailability to the body, which means it’s also giving you everything you need in order to process the nutritional quantity within that food. Wholefoods also contain phytochemicals that stave off the development of all sorts of other diseases. Food will always trump supplements.
HOW FAITHFUL TO NATURE PROCURES VITAMIN SUPPLEMENTS
Naturally occurring vitamin sources will always take precedence of synthesised ones and currently form the majority of what we stock.
SOME TOP SELLING NATURAL VITAMINS TO CONSIDER:
- Natural Origins Organic Acerola C
- Vibrant Health Vitamin d3-4000iu
- Amorganic Superfood Multinutrient Daily Dose
For synthesised vitamins we do our best to avoid any inactive ingredients as far as possible.
These inactive ingredients are not accepted in products we list:
- Titanium Dioxide
A note on magnesium stearate: Magnesium stearate is a contentious ingredient currently. The research on it is very ambiguous and it hasn’t yet been proven to be as detrimental as some people are making it out to be. On this regard we would currently encourage you to use your own discretion.
GOOD QUALITY SYNTHETIC VITAMINS TO CONSIDER:
NOT ALL THAT IS NATURAL IS CREATED EQUAL
Without straying too far into the territory of an entirely different debate, I will just add that in choosing to get all your nutrient-intake from food, you do need to consider that not all foods are made equal. Some are grown in nutrient dense soils, without the use of harmful pesticides. If you are making a concerted effort to eat a balanced, organic, wholefood diet, you might find your body doesn’t require vitamin or mineral supplementation.
When it comes down to it, you will know if taking a supplement is having a positive effect on your body. As long as you’re getting in a wide range of nutrients from a varied diet, and not taking the supplements to balance out your junk food eating habits, taking a high-quality supplement just to make sure you’re ticking all the boxes, is not necessarily a bad move.
At the end of the day, you need to weigh up what you can afford and then, through trial and error, work out whether natural or synthetic vitamin sources suits your body, budget and lifestyle best.
*The biggest exception to this is natural vitamin E, also known as d-alpha-tocopherol, which is twice as effective as the synthetic version d-alpha-tocopherol.