A synthetic vitamin in most cases has the same molecular structure as a natural vitamin, but that is where the similarity ends. Mother Nature, in her infinite wisdom, has put a wholefood vitamin together complete with cofactors, enzymes and other components that the body generally needs for optimal results. Wholefood vitamins are actually groups of related compounds that cluster in the foods we eat and form a complex matrix that nutritional science is still trying to understand. A synthetic vitamin provides part of the picture, but not the whole.
The basic principle is that Nature never makes a nutrient that is found by itself, in isolation. Let’s look at few examples to make more sense of this;
Vitamin C found in many fruits and vegetables, contains the following components;
Rutin, bioflavinoids (Vitamin P), Factor K, Factor J, Factor P, tryosinase, ascorbinogen and ascorbic acid.
Synthetic Vitamin C is made up of ascorbic acid. Not quite the same thing is it? Nor does the body think so. People with scurvy have been fed just ascorbic acid and the scurvy (a disease caused by lack of Vitamin C) did not improve much, however those fed the wholefood Vitamin C complex improved.
Vitamin A is associated with:
Retinols, retinoids, retinal, carotenoids, carotenes, fatty acids, vitamin C, vitamin E, Vitamin B, Vitamin D, enzymes and minerals.
Synthetic Vitamin A is made up of retinol, retinal or retinoic acid. Isolated from these other factors, Vitamin A on its own cannot perform its biological functions in the same way and in fact has been associated with toxic effects in high doses.
The body will convert Vitamin A from naturally occurring beta carotene as and when it needs it. Most synthetic beta carotene on the market is from one chemical company and is stabilised in refined vegetable oils, also known as trans fatty acids.
The Vitamin E matrix consists of:
Delta tocopherols, gamma tocopherols, beta tocopherols, alpha tocopherols, xanthine, selenium, lipositols.
Commonly only alpha tocopherol tends to be synthesized and called Vitamin E, which only has around 1% of the molecular activity of wholefood Vitamin E and also stands to deplete the body’s stores of precious selenium.
It is no wonder why there are contradictory reports about vitamins. When you hear about a study that has shown a vitamin not to be beneficial, when other studies has suggested otherwise, usually you find that a synthetic version of the nutrient was used in the study. It is therefore no surprise that the results are so different.
As a consumer, you have to learn to be savvy and read labels in order to understand what it is you are really getting. When looking at a supplement label, if you see nutrients individually listed on the ingredients section of the product label, then these are always fortified additive nutrients, listed separately as ingredients because they are individually added to the formula. If the nutrients are naturally occurring from the products food ingredients, then you will never see these nutrients listed in the ingredients section on the label. Remember, the ‘ingredient section’ shows the individually added ingredients in the product recipe. Unlike supplements made with precise levels of fortified additive nutrients, those naturally occurring nutrients found in wholefood supplements vary from batch to batch. Nutrient levels found in both synthetic supplements and wholefood supplements will be found on the ‘Nutritional Panel’ of a product label. Naturally occurring nutrients are usually in lower dosages, as nature intended, but they come with their co-factors, so they are much more effective overall.
Another way to see if your supplement contains synthetic nutrients is by looking at the percentage of the nutrients and compare it to the gram weight. For example, if you have 1,000mg of Acerola Cherry, then in a concentrated extract form, the most vitamin C that you can get is between 17% if the cherries are organic and 20% if they are modern day farmed. That is 170mg to 200mg maximum of vitamin C per 1,000mg of the cherry extract. So when you see 1,000mg tablets with more than 500mg+ of vitamin C, you will know that those tablets contain synthetic vitamin C, because there is no food in nature that provide this level of vitamin C in 1,000mg of ingredients.
Unfortunately to confuse matters, companies are allowed to refer to the synthetic nutrients as ‘nature’s identical’. Unfortunately, you do get companies referring to their supplements as ‘natural’ or ‘food state’ when they use synthetic nutrients. One company that we are aware of tells their customers that their products are organic and 100% natural, when neither is true. Always look on the label to see if a company is certified organic and look at the ingredient label to see the forms used and the dosages present in the formula.
If you want a vitamin tablet made with synthetic nutrients, then you have every right to buy it. In fact, there are examples when higher dose nutrients at levels much higher than those provided in nature can be beneficial, but there are also times when they are not. For example, high dose vitamin C supplements use the synthetic form. You can tell by looking at the type and quantity of ingredients used in the supplement. If it was from nature, using the most potent modern day farmed food extract available, you would need 10,000mg of the food extract to make 2,000mg of vitamin C, or if it was certified organic it would be about 11,700mg of extract. There is usually more vitamin C in organic foods, but the process to make the extract is regulated with organic foods, which results in slightly lower vitamin C levels when compared to modern day farmed extract versions. Organic foods are obviously much better overall. Vitamin C is a fabulous antioxidant, however when taken at very high doses regularly, this antioxidant actually becomes an ‘oxidant’ accelerating free radical damage in the body. It does this by increasing the body’s absorption of iron beyond normal levels. For homeostasis, iron needs to be within a very narrow range, you do not want it to be too high or too low. Your body is very clever, when it has enough iron, it will decrease the efficiency that you absorb iron from your food and if your stores are too low then it increases the efficiency of absorption. However, Vitamin C increases the absorption rate of iron which can be beneficial, your body is designed to cater for this from dietary vitamin C, but when the levels of this vitamin are too high through very high dose supplementation, it can override the body’s ability to regulate iron absorption. When the iron levels increase beyond the narrow range that is needed it can result in excessive levels of free radical damage. In nature, it would be very difficult to try to replicate such high levels of vitamin C consumption, but today people can easily buy very high dose synthetic versions, take very high dosages because they have heard about the benefits of vitamin C and think more is better, without realising the range when this powerful antioxidant is beneficial and the levels it can become an oxidant. This example does not mean that other high dose antioxidants cause problems, this is very specific to vitamin C’s relationship to iron absorption. Someone consuming 1,000mg of vitamin C a day will enjoy many benefits, but when people take five times this, they are not getting 5 times the benefits. The rate at which it becomes a problem is directly influenced by the amount of iron in the body, the amount of iron in the person’s diet, health conditions, the amount of vitamin C consumed and the period of time when a high dose is taken.
Price is not an indicator on whether a company uses natural nutrients or synthetic. The markup used by some companies is many times higher than others. Our product for example is about 21p a gram, it is made with a large range of the finest quality certified organic ingredients. A competitor using much cheaper modern farmed ingredients combined with synthetic nutrients with a fraction of the product benefits, sells their product at 42p per gram, twice the price of ours, simply because they have a totally different markup and approach to how they market their product. So price is not always an indicator of quality.
Things to look for on your product label. Look on the label to see if the company is certified organic. Take no assurances if a company states that they use ‘natural’ or ‘food state’ nutrients, because it does not mean that they do not combine them with synthetic versions. Most of the so called ‘natural’ companies that we see use synthetic nutrients. Ideally, you want to see statements like ‘100% natural’ or ‘free from synthetic nutrients’ giving you assurances that these statements refer to the whole formula and not just part of it.
We believe the gold standard in supplementation is by providing nutrients from nature with their cofactors and phytonutrients, which in combination provide invaluable benefits. We hope you have found this article interesting and an insight to the difference in the types of supplements in the marketing place. Look out for more blogs from NewGen Direct revealing the truth and misconceptions in the supplement industry.