By Jody McCutcheon
If you’re like most people, you really want to stay healthy. You really want to eat organic, natural food. You really want to make all your meals at home…but you just can’t.
Modern, hectic Western lifestyles, processed foods and eating on the go means like most people in the developed world, your diet is probably rich in calories, but low in nutrition.
Being aware of this, many of us are taking measures like having a super-nutritious shake or smoothie for breakfast, packed with fruit, nuts, algae and other ‘superfoods’. Many more of us are taking supplements to ensure we get our recommended daily dose of vitamins.
This isn’t a bad thing: vitamins and other health supplements do help promote your optimal health and strong immune system, and do provide support for defense against a growing number of health concerns.
However, there are important issues to consider.
Natural vs Synthetic
When we ask: are 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, vitamine A palmitate. 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 ABCs of Vitamin C
Now let’s discuss the most commonly ingested vitamin: C.
Unfortunately, almost all vitamin C in dietary supplements is synthetic, listed on the label as
“ascorbic acid.” The megadoses that are commonly given on the label also help identify this vitamin as synthetic — it’s almost impossible to get much more than 100-150 mg of vitamin C from food into a tablet or capsule. The amount of vitamin C in a natural supplement, therefore, may be listed in the supplement facts panel as “vitamin C 100 mg” and will not list “ascorbic acid” (or any other of the many types of synthetic vitamin C).
A new study shows that adults taking high doses of synthetic vitamin C suffered side effects. Doses of 1,000 mg of vitamin C a day impaired their energy systems by weakening the mitochondria of their cells. Synthetic vitamin C also had significant adverse effects on the antioxidant system, which is a key immune regulator. Importantly, no such effects were apparent with natural vitamin C.
Vegans and B Vitamins
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; Adenosylcobalamin
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.
Truly natural dietary supplements are made from freeze-dried real food, or otherwise are not heated, and the nutrients they contain are natural doses without added synthetics. Fish oil (containing EPA/DHA), flax oil (containing alpha-linolenic acid), and vegetable or fruit concentrates containing many nutrients are common examples.
Unfortunately, most fruit and vegetable concentrates used in dietary supplements are dried with
very high heat, destroying various nutrients. They don’t supply many nutrients, but are used in the
supplement to make it appear ‘natural’, while all the other nutrients listed on the label come from synthetic or other unnatural additions. These so-called “whole food” supplements containing fruit or vegetable concentrates have to be “spiked” with synthetic vitamins and other unnatural nutrients in order to list any appreciable amounts of nutrients. Read the supplement facts panel carefully.
No Vitamin Is An Island
Vitamins need to work in combination with other ‘transporter’ vitamins, enzymes or minerals to be absorbed. For example, iron absorbs best with vitamin C, and vitamin D works best with vitamin K. But most synthetic vitamins lack the transporters and co-factors associated with naturally occurring vitamins because they have been “isolated.” The Organic Consumers Association states that isolated vitamins cannot be used or recognized by the body in the same way as natural ones can.
Consequently, isolated vitamins aren’t always immediately used by the body, and are either stored until you obtain or create the nutrients required to use them effectively or are just excreted. Synthetic vitamins are also devoid of necessary trace minerals and must use the body’s own mineral reserves as a ‘transporter’, which could lead to dangerous mineral deficiencies.
Beware The Toxic Ingredients
Multivitamins sometimes contain ingredients we’d rather not, for various reasons, put into our bodies. Children and vegans are especially at risk for consuming products they (or their parents) would rather avoid.
For example, let’s look at children’s vitamins. Estimates suggest that a third of American children consume vitamin supplements, yet look at the ingredient list on one of the most popular brands – Flintstone’s – and you’ll see some scary additions. Cupric oxide is a pigment used in the ceramic industry, a copper supplement the European Union’s Dangerous Substance Directive has classified as a hazardous substance. A potential toxin to humans and environment alike, we just have to ask: what on earth is it doing in children’s vitamins?
A second questionable ingredient is zinc oxide, another environmental hazard according to the EU’s Dangerous Substance Directive. Sorbitol, which studies show can exacerbate irritable bowel symptoms, is also on the list, as is aspartame. We’ve already written about aspartame and its potential neurotoxicity. It strains credulity to think that parents would knowingly feed their children these ingredients – yet sadly, few look at (or even understand) the labels.
Then there are the petroleum-derived artificial colours. Strong evidence suggests that the neurotoxicity of artificial food colouring agents increases when combined with aspartame. Not to mention the probability that artificial food colouring is carcinogenic and causes ADHD in kids. Somehow these ingredients made it past quality control.
Oh, and let’s not forget that Flintstones’ parent company is Bayer, a GMO-advocate that just merged with GMO-giant Monsanto. So we can assume that the multivitamin’s cornstarch and vitamin C sources are (or soon will be) GMO-based, even though they’re not labeled as such. With the jury still out on the long-term health effects of GMO’s, what parent would risk giving their child potentially toxic products?
But it’s not just children’s vitamins that are packed with crap: ensure you look for artificial colourings, artificial sweeteners and fillers like talc on the label of any supplement.
Whether or not they promote good health, many multivitamins simply aren’t vegan-friendly. Vegans should carefully read labels and watch out for animal-based products in the ingredients. Common non-vegan additives to many brands and types of multivitamins include animal bones, cod liver oil, duodenal substances from the digestive tracts of cattle and swine, lipase (which is sourced from the stomachs and tongue glands of calves, kid goats and lambs) and pepsin (from hog stomachs). More specifically, lanolin (a sheep byproduct) is often found in vitamin D supplements—in vitamin D3 it’s normally called calciferol or cholecalciferol. And of course multivitamin capsule coatings often contain gelatin, another animal byproducts.
Among our daily-required micronutrients are trace metals, two of which shed light on our discussion.
Iron helps us maintain good health by managing oxygen and hemoglobin levels, and helping with respiration, metabolism and immunity. Beans, lentils, greens, dried fruits, grains, soy, pumpkin and sesame seeds are all good iron sources, but women of menstruating age are often low in this. Additionally, eating vitamin C–rich foods such as citrus fruits, red peppers and pineapple enhances iron absorption, whilst drinking a lot of coffee can inhibit it. Copper, meanwhile, promotes enzyme function and helps maintain healthy bones, blood and nerves; good dietary sources include nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, leafy green vegetables and whole-grain cereals.
These two trace metals occur in the most common multivitamins. The Centrum Adults Under 50 brand contains more than twice the RDA of iron for men and one hundred percent of the iron RDA for women, while both men’s and women’s One A Day formulas contain more than twice the copper RDA. The problem is, excessive amounts of these metals can be toxic and even fatal. Studies (e.g., here, here and here) link excess copper and iron intake to brain disorders, including Alzheimer’s, while even “modestly elevated” levels can contribute to impaired cognition.
The Bottom Line
We all want to maintain good health. But the old axiom holds true here: anything worth doing is worth doing well.Essentially, synthetic versions of vitamins contain chemical compounds that were not meant for human consumption and do not occur in nature. Evolution has dictated that we eat the food we can gather from the earth, not the food we create in a lab. Rather than relying on the quick (and potentially dangerous) fix of multivitamins to achieve micronutrient RDA’s, instead make the effort to research which brands contain the most natural forms of the vitamin, without any of the unwanted or toxic ingredients mentioned above.
You should also be aware of what supplemented vitamins are added to the foods you eat daily: check your milk (or mylk!) container to see what’s added; cereals, breads, and other flour-based foods often also contain vitamin additives (normally synthetic, too).
Of course, it’s worth remembering: eating a balanced, organic diet is always your best bet. If that’s not possible, here’s a list of some of the best, most natural vitamin brands: