Natural Vitamins vs. Synthetic
By: Dr. George Obikoya
A significant number of the vitamins you will find on the pharmacy shelves these days are made synthetically through chemical processes, rather than derived directly from plants or other materials, although some manufacturers still produce natural vitamins. In fact, manufacturers of natural vitamins and some of their adherents claim they are superior to synthetic vitamins. Is there any substance in these claims?
It is rather difficult to make the distinction between "synthetic" and "natural" vitamins. Some define a natural vitamin as a concentrated nutrient derived from a quality natural source. The idea is maximum retention of the natural material; no artificial colors, sweeteners, or preservatives should be used.
A natural source contains co-factors that come with the nutrient in nature. For instance, some co-factors that are usually found with Vitamin C are various bioflavonoids. It is concentrated from its natural source as carefully as possible. No extreme heat, pressure, or possibly toxic solvents are used. There are no sugar or chemical tablet coatings. The nutrients are prepared from high quality raw ingredients. No artificial chemicals are added. Harsh binders and fillers do not hinder absorption.
Synthetic vitamins are made in a laboratory setting from coal tar
derivatives. No co-factors are present. Most of the food supplements
sold on the market today are synthetic and often cheaper to produce
than natural vitamins.
Any additional way to compare natural and synthetic vitamins is to consider the differences in their molecular structures. Is the molecular structure of natural vitamins altered by the synthetic process?
Natural health authorities claim that synthetic vitamins are useless and ineffective. Orthodox doctors and even some nutritionists claim that synthetic vitamins have a molecular chemical structure identical to the natural vitamin and that they are just as effective. Who is right and who is wrong?
It is reasonable to expect the two to function similarly and be bio-available in identical amounts to your body if there is no such alteration. Furthermore, the same natural vitamin derived from different natural sources or raw materials will be the same so long as no other substances unique to that particular source are included.
With Vitamin E, for example, the d- form of vitamin E derived from vegetable oils and other natural sources is different from the dl- form (which is often called the synthetic form). The dl- tocopherols are actually a mixture: the d-form and the l-form (usually a 1:1 mixture).
The human body uses only the d- form. The l- form, when present, does not confer any known health benefit and is normally excreted by the body. So, in essence, when consuming the dl- form of vitamin E, you obtain an effective dose of about half the vitamin E dosage reported on the label.
Vitamin C that is found and isolated from oranges is identical to the vitamin C derived from other plant sources, largely because plants containing vitamin C biosynthesize the substance in the same manner. However, when Vitamin C was first isolated and produced in a supplement form, we did not know about bioflavonoids. They were discovered later. It was found that in nature, bioflavonoids always accompany Vitamin C. In fact, the bioflavonoids are essential for better absorption. They increase bioavailability by 30%. This suggests you should take the natural form of vitamin C.
The counter-argument would be: As with all foods and nutrients, Vitamin C is a chemical. It is also known as ascorbic acid. You can take a bite of an orange and obtain ascorbic acid, or you can produce ascorbic acid from corn in a laboratory. The molecules are identical and perform the exact same function in the human body.
Supplements, as the word clearly states, are meant to supplement a highly varied diet of whole, unprocessed foods. You can get the bioflavinoids from citrus fruits but you may not know exactly how much vitamin C you are getting and how much citrus you will need to take per day to get enough of both whereas you will with synthetic vitamins. The best way to get all the vitamins you need is in a high-quality liquid multivitamin.
Laboratory-produced compounds provide the biochemist with numerous advantages. One example is dose consistency. In nature, one orange may contain 50 mg of vitamin C and another may contain only 10 mg. It depends on where it was grown, when it was harvested and under what conditions it was transported and stored. Conversely, nutritional supplement companies must guarantee that their products deliver precisely what is on the label.
Purity is another advantage. Laboratory-produced nutrients are "USP grade," meaning that they come from licensed production laboratories and meet the rigid standards of the United States Pharmacopeia. It is ironic to note that some of the most highly contaminated products in health food history were ones which made the most fanfare of the "all natural" issue, and did not utilize USP ingredients.
Furthermore most synthetically made vitamins and many other nutrients are either identical to their natural counterparts or easily convert to the natural form in the human body. Also, most synthetic vitamins and nutrients are both cheaper and purer, with less potential for contamination.
Quality in vitamins and nutrients is extremely hard to quantify. The list of ingredients and their amounts is the most important aspect when making your choice. If that list is approximately equivalent, then price should be your guide, unless you are given some clear and objective reason why you should buy the natural form. Vitamin supplements are most infective in liquid form because liquids absorb 5 times better than do pills.
A good multivitamin is the foundation of health and nutrition. Take a look at our scientific reviews of many of the popular brands for factors such as ingredients, areas of improvement, quality level, and overall value. If you are looking for a high quality liquid multivitamin, we suggest that you take a look at the Multivitamin Product Comparisons.