Are Natural Vitamins Better Than Synthetic? And what’s meant by ‘natural’ or ‘synthetic’ vitamins anyway?
By Chere Di Boscio
In these times of health crises, we all want to be a bit more immune to whatever is going around, so we take vitamins. We also take them because we know we’re not always eating the best way we could: in fact, around half of all Americans are below the recommended daily intake for vitamins A, C, D, and E, calcium and magnesium.
Luckily, it seems you can buy them at just about any pharmacy, grocery store or health food shop. But are all vitamins equally good for your health?
Over millions of years, the human digestive system developed to absorb vitamins and minerals from foods. But sadly, modern farming techniques deplete the soil of the enzymes, bacteria and minerals that helped enrich our food with goodness, so for many, taking supplements is the best way to restore those nutrients to their bodies.
But get this: it’s not enough to take an isolated vitamin. They need combined minerals, cofactors and enzymes which work together to enable optimal uptake and use within the specific digestive structures of the human body, maximising benefits to our bodies.
The majority of supplements available on the market today are made artificially. These include vitamins, minerals and amino acids, among others. While these commonly synthetic supplements we take may offer some benefit, they’re not as complete or as useful as their naturally derived counterparts. In fact, they can even just pass straight through our bodies without being absorbed at all!
To know whether or not a supplement is natural, you’ll need to read the label. Natural supplements usually list food sources or are labeled as 100% plant or animal-based. Products that list nutrients individually, such as Vitamin D, or use chemical names like ascorbic acid, are almost certainly synthetic.
Are Natural Vitamins Better Than Synthetic?
Recent studies have shown increased intake of wholefoods to have significant health benefits while the results of studies on the efficacy of synthetic supplements have been inconsistent, with some synthetic nutrients being absorbed better than natural sources, some being absorbed the same, and with others not being absorbed at all.
This is believed to be mainly because when we eat whole foods, we’re not consuming single nutrients, but rather a whole range of those vitamins, minerals, cofactors and enzymes that allow for optimal use by the body.
For this reason, eating organic whole foods may help manage and prevent heart disease, diabetes, cancer and early death. Some of the best foods you can eat to get core nutrients include leafy greens, oily fish, eggs, nuts and seeds, legumes and beans, and whole grains.
On the other hand, dietary supplements that use words ending in -acid, -ide, and sometimes -ate or use the “dl” before the name are usually lab-made, and are:
- NOT as bioavailable as whole food vitamins
- NOT absorbable or usable
- NOT what we find in natural foods
- NOT recognizable to the body
The “virtually identical” vitamins can be hard on the kidneys and are often treated as toxins. Recent studies even tie synthetic vitamins to an increased risk of cancer.
Many foods today, such as dried pastas, breads cereals and vegan milks, are fortified with synthetic vitamins to make up for the lack of nutrition that would normally come in regular, unpasteurised milk and whole grains. If you want to avoid introducing synthetic vitamins to your body, you should avoid such foods.
The Dangers of Synthetics
When we ask: are synthetic vitamins good for you? we need to consider what kind of vitamin we’re talking about. Just as bioidentical hormones aren’t related to cancer but synthetic hormones are, so are vitamins A and E good for you in their natural forms, but toxic when ingested in their synthetic ones.
Both vitamins are toxic in high doses, and it has long been known that excessive intake of dietary vitamin A (preformed retinol only, not beta-carotene; found in animal products such as liver, milk, kidney, fish oil) during pregnancy can cause birth defects. But did you know that many of the problems related to vitamin A ingestion are centred around the synthetic version?
For example, for several decades, virtually all homogenized milk has been fortified with the additive vitamin A palmitate – despite the fact that the Environmental Working Group and New York Senator Chuck Schumer pointed out that high doses of topical retinyl palmitate have accelerated cancers in lab animals.
It also causes stomach problems, joint pain, skin dryness, liver toxicity and eye and mouth problems. It’s not that vitamin A itself does this – these effects are related to its artificial version, vitamin A palmitate (which is also derived from rainforest-killing palm oil).
The problem arises when we take multivitamins that contain vitamin A; this is actually a pretty easy one to get, as it’s found naturally in carrots, sweet potatoes, lettuce, mangoes and apricots, to name but a few common vegetables and fruits – so there is no need to add it to milk, and it’s unlikely that you would need to supplement this at all.
Similarly, the story isn’t much better with vitamin E. Unfortunately, the synthetic source is far less cheaper than organic, food based sources, but if you regularly take the synthetic version of vitamin E, (which is a petrochemically derived analogue of natural vitamin E), you could be disrupting your endocrine system and sending your body into a perilous state of health.
When you read about mainstream news sources such as CNN reporting that vitamin E causes cancer, or hear that the SELECT (Selenium and Vitamin E Cancer Prevention) Trial indicated a 17% increase in the risk of prostate cancer among men over 50 who consumed 400 international units (IU) of vitamin E on a daily basis – you need to remember that the vitamin used was synthetic, not natural. (It’s also worth considering that the adult RDA for vitamin E is only 22.5IU/day – one might wonder why study patients were given so much extra vitamin E in this trial?)
Good dietary sources of vitamin E include high-fat foods such as nuts, seeds and avocado, as well as wheat germ, dark leafy greens and fish – again, no need to supplement if you just grab a handful of nuts during the day.
The Vegan & Vegetarian Conundrum
But what about vegans?
Vegans are often aware that they need to take vitamin B12, as this is normally only found in soil bacteria (which is killed by modern farming methods) and red meat. Synthetic B vitamins aren’t so harmful, but they need to be taken carefully to get any benefits.
Most B vitamins on the market are synthetic, but the truly natural ones are referred to as active B vitamins. The commonly used active B vitamins are listed on the label as:
Thiamine (B1): Thiamine pyrophosphate; Thiamine triphosphate
Riboflavin (B2): Riboflavin-5-phosphate; Flavin mononucleotide (FMN)
Niacin (B3): Nicotinamide (adenine dinucleotide)
Pantothenic acid (B5): Pantethine
Pyridoxine (B6): Pyridoxal-5-phosphate
Folic acid: Folinic acid; 5-methyl tetrahydrofolate
Cobalamin (B12): Methylcobalamin
If you read the label and don’t find these active names for the B vitamins, then they’re probably synthetic. Some synthetic vitamins may convert to their active forms once in the body, but they require additional nutrients. For example, in order for the body to use synthetic folic acid properly, additional vitamin C, niacin and vitamin B12 are required.
One company called Human Food decided to make a product aimed specifically at vegans and vegetarians that contains only 100%, easily absorbable food derived nutrients. These are fully complete with the synergistic enzymes and cofactors required for optimal use by the body.
Human Food contains significant quantities of many of the nutrients most commonly taken as supplements including at least 50% of the RI 9 of Iron, Magnesium, Calcium, Omega 3, Vitamin D, and B Vitamins: B1, B2, B3, B5, B6.
So far, this is the only currently available food product in the world to contain a natural, food-state source of vitamin B12 in which over two thirds of those following a plant-based diet are deficient. Each bar contains 100% of the RI of vitamin B12 which, on a plant-based diet, is otherwise only available in a synthesised form.
The Bottom Line
There can be no doubt that consuming organic wholefoods is the best way to get the vitamins, minerals, and enzymes that you need to stay healthy, but few of us are able to eat so healthfully every day. The next best bet is to consume natural vitamins through whole food sources like Human Food, or through organic multivitamins that are based on whole food sources like basil, guava, and other herbs, fruits, and vegetables.
If this isn’t available to you, a synthetic multivitamin may be better than nothing, but perhaps it would be an even better idea to reconsider your diet rather than to turn to such supplements.
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