Which Should You Take and How Can You Tell the Difference?
Key Things to Take from This:
- That multivitamin you bought is most likely synthetic.
- Chemists isolate single compounds in a laboratory, ignoring the rest of the family of micronutrients.
- A synthetic replica of something in its natural state is not the same.
- Our bodies might have an adverse reaction to synthetic vitamins and biological activity can be as little as 30%.
Nature as the Ultimate Chemist
If you are taking vitamins to supplement your diet, take some time to look at the label on the back. What you might notice is a large quantity of multi-syllabic words that you’ve never heard of before. These are the isolated compounds that comprise your multivitamins and other supplements. They are meant to provide a convenient way for individuals to get all of the nutrients they need without having to worry about getting them through food sources. However, can chemists replicate the perfection already achieved by Mother Nature?
What Are Synthetic Vitamins?
Natural vitamins are those that use a complete family of micro-nutrients just as they are found in nature. For example, rather than just isolate beta-carotene, natural vitamins will include the family of micronutrients that go along with beta-carotene in nutrient-rich foods like carrots or tomatoes. This allows for optimal absorption and utilization by the body.
Synthetic vitamins, on the other hand, isolate these micronutrients and create the compound in a laboratory. For example, chromium is a rich mineral that many of us are lacking because of poor soil. As a glucose tolerant factor, it protects against diabetes, so researchers have developed a synthetic version of chromium to use for supplementation.
Unfortunately, the very thing that makes chromium so important for our bodies is not there in chromium in synthetic form. Chemists create chromium products in a lab with an isolated compound called chromium picolinate, which does not have the glucose tolerant factor. This is not an isolated case either. Many of the synthetic vitamins out there don’t duplicate the family of micronutrients that make whole food sources so nutritionally beneficial.
Take the aforementioned beta-carotene supplement. Beta-carotene is part of the carotenoid family of micronutrients that you’ll find in tomatoes, carrots and sweet potatoes. When you see beta-carotene, alpha-carotene, cantozantheen, and omega-carotene won’t be far behind – unless, of course, you create beta carotene in a laboratory. Given these other carotenoids’ nutritional benefits, users will miss out on them when taking a synthetic supplement.
Plus, the synthetic version may produce some adverse effects. The synthetic compound used to create beta-carotene in labs, acetate, has been linked in studies of male smokers to an increased rate of lung cancer. Those who consumed beta-carotene through whole food sources were not affected, which leaves many to believe that it’s the whole family of carotenoids that offer protective benefits rather than the isolated beta-carotene nutrient itself.
Most nutrients – including vitamins B, C and E, amino acids, and some minerals – are found in complex groups, so by isolating compounds within the group, individuals are not able to get the most out of the nutrient. This is especially the case with Vitamin E, where biological activity is reduced by as much as 70% when it is taken in synthetic form rather than through a natural vitamin or food source.
Shining the Light on Synthetic Vitamins
Manufacturers of vitamins produce synthetic vitamins because production is much cheaper. Therefore, up to 90% of the vitamins you find on the market are synthetic vitamins. Luckily, a beam of polarized light shines the light on the differences between the two. When light passes through a natural vitamin, the light will bend to the right. This is why you’ll see the letter d often on labels. D stands for dextro, which means right. Light that passes through a synthetic vitamin, however, will split into two parts. Therefore, dl will appear on labels, which is short for dextro and levo (left).
The Importance of Reading the Label
Just because a label says organic or natural, it doesn’t mean you’re necessarily obtaining your vitamins from natural food sources. Those who want to take advantage of the many benefits that come from taking natural vitamins may see certain buzzwords like natural, pure and organic and assume that they’re perfectly fine. Unfortunately, though, this is often not the case.
- For a vitamin to be labeled natural, only ten percent of it has to actually be natural. The rest can be synthetic.
- Any vitamin with a carbon molecule can be considered organic, and synthetics often are made from coal tar derivatives.
- Many quasi-natural vitamins have synthetics added to them to add potency. If you see acetate, chloride, gluconate hydrochloride and nitrate added to the vitamin’s name, it’s not completely natural. If the chemical is blank, this also means it’s synthetic.
What Should the Consumer Do?
There’s no doubt that there are many benefits to taking natural vitamins as part of a healthy diet. They can help supplement diminished vitamin/mineral levels and increase energy and immunity. However, the type of vitamins you take matter. Reading the label is crucial to ensuring you’re not taking synthetic vitamins. Synthetic vitamins, although cheaper, are at best ineffective and at worst detrimental to your health. For more information on how to ensure you’re taking natural forms of your vitamins, please consult the chart below.
Where Are You Getting Your Vitamins From?
|Vitamin||Why the Body Needs It?||Natural Food Sources||Source on Supplement Label||Natural/Synthetic|
|Vitamin A||VisionImmunityreproduction||Root vegetables, spinach||Fish OilAcetatePalmitate||NaturalSyntheticSynthetic|
|Vitamin B-Complex||Cell and neurotransmitter production||Milk, liver, eggs, and peanuts||Brewer’s YeastNo given source||NaturalSynthetic|
|Vitamin B1||Helps body process carbohydrates||Whole grains||YeastThiamine MononitrateThiamine Hydrochloride||NaturalSyntheticSynthetic|
|Vitamin B2||Maintains metabolism and aides in red blood cell production||Milk and bread products||YeastRiboflavin||NaturalSynthetic|
|Vitamin B3||Digestion and the production of cholesterol||Meat, fish, whole grains||YeastNiacinamideNiacin||NaturalCo-NaturalSynthetic|
|Vitamin B5||Fatty acid metabolism||Chicken, beef, potatoes, oats||Rice bran, Yeast, LiverCalcium D-Pantothenate||NaturalSynthetic|
|Vitamin B6||Nervous system, metabolize proteins and sugars||Fortified cereals and soy products||YeastPyridoxine Hydrochloride||NaturalSynthetic|
|Vitamin B7||Synthesis of fats, glycogens||Liver, fruits, meats||Liverd-Biotin||NaturalSynthetic|
|Vitamin B12||Red blood cell production||Fish, poultry, meat||LiverMicro-organism fermentationCobalamin Concentrate||NaturalSyntheticSynthetic|
|Vitamin C||Immunity, cell protection||Peppers, citrus fruits||CitrusAscorbic acid||NaturalSynthetic|
|Vitamin D||Metabolizing calcium for healthy bones||Fish, milk, fortified cereal||Fish oilsCalciferol||NaturalSynthetic|
|Vitamin E||Protects cells against damage||Seeds, nuts, oils||Vegetable Oildl-alpha tocopherol||NaturalSynthetic|
|Vitamin K||Green leafy vegetables||Blood clotting and bone health||AlfalfaMenadione||NaturalSynthetic|