Synthetic vs Natural Vitamins
I received this email recently:
“I hope this email finds you well. I am a writer for the website . . . and we are currently working on an article regarding synthetic versus natural vitamins. I found your research, “The Best Supplements for your Health” extremely helpful on the topic. . . I was hoping to speak with you regarding the process of synthesizing vitamins. There is a lot of research on there that suggests most companies create synthetic vitamins from ground mineral rocks or limestone, given the accessibility and cheap nature of the rock. Is this how all synthetic vitamins are made or just certain cheap, “over the counter” options that are mass produced (like Centrum)? When you recommend vitamins to your clients, are there specific brands you rely on? I am finding it hard to locate the specific steps taken in the lab by most pharmaceutical companies that process vitamins. Given the lack of regulation by the FDA, I am finding it hard to be pointed in the right direction without the help of a doctor.”
The writer was kind enough to send me a draft of their article, and, overall, I thought it was fine. But some of the questions in the above inquiry worried me. I felt those points needed clarification.
(1) “There is a lot of research on there that suggests most companies create synthetic vitamins from ground mineral rocks or limestone, given the accessibility and cheap nature of the rock.” To the contrary, there is no research suggesting this. Instead, there are companies using this as a marketing pitch attempting to promote their type of mineral supplement (usually calcium) over others. So the first thing to note is that this is not “research.” The second thing to note is that this has nothing to do with vitamins–it is directed only towards mineral supplements (calcium, magnesium, etc). Third, it has nothing to do with the “cost” of rock. If anything, it has to do with potency (and not the way you might think–more on this in a moment). Fourth, it has nothing to do with “synthetic versus natural,” as what could be more “natural” than Mother Nature’s own rock (limestone)?
Before we delve into the greater questions of how vitamins are synthesized, FDA regulation, and recommendations, I think it will help to elaborate on this first question. We will use calcium as an example
Calcium is an essential nutrient, and is present in various foods. Most of us fail to get sufficient calcium from the unfortified foods in our diet, however. Many of us avoid calcium-rich foods such as dairy products due to lactose intolerance and/or milk protein allergies. So we rely on calcium containing nutritional supplements. One problem with calcium supplementation, however, is that the amount needed, compared to most other nutrients, is large–from 800 to 1200 mg. How do we fit that much calcium into a tablet or capsule?
You have to understand, first, that calcium is not available in pure form–it has to be obtained as a compound associated with other substances. The more room the other substance occupies, the less room you have for calcium. The goal, therefore, is to find a calcium containing compound that contains the highest proportion of calcium so that you can take as small a number of tablets as possible.
The best solution is calcium in the form of calcium carbonate. This form of calcium provides 40% calcium by weight. This means that you need 2,000 mg of calcium carbonate to get 800 mg of calcium. This can be obtained from two tablets! What’s important at this point is that you understand that all other forms of calcium–calcium citrate, chelated calcium, “food grown” calcium, etc–contain less calcium. Often, the chelated or “food” forms have, at best, around 10% calcium. That means you would need 8,000 mg of chelated calcium rather than 2,000 mg of calcium carbonate. This translates to a significantly greater number of tablets to obtain the same amount of calcium.
For many people, the idea of taking 8 tablets rather than 2 tablets is a deal breaker.
There must be a trade-off, you say. And you are correct. Here it is: the high potency calcium carbonate (limestone, oyster shell, etc) form of calcium will only be properly broken down and absorbed in the presence of gastric hydrochloric acid. This means you have to take the supplement with meals. If you can do this, this form of calcium is just as good, if not better (fewer tablets, lower cost, highly stable, etc) than other forms.
If you do not want to worry about this, then you want to use another form of calcium. I usually recommend calcium citrate. Chelated or “food grown” calcium is fine also, with two exceptions–they may be more expensive, and, for various marketing purposes, an attempt often made to imply that, in some way, the calcium has been imbued with some type of super-powers, or increased potency, due to the “growth” process. As you will see in the next section of this discussion, calcium is calcium. Period.
(2) Regarding “synthetic versus natural vitamins” and “the process of synthesizing vitamins.” Since, with a few exceptions, there is no difference between “synthetic” and “natural” vitamins, and the supposed “made from cheap rocks” premise is inaccurate, it follows that the processes involved the synthesizing various vitamins (and minerals) is inconsequential and irrelevant.
(See appendix for additional discussion on this topic)
It’s irrelevant because from a molecular, chemical and therefor biological standpoint, there is no difference between a synthetic and natural vitamin. (I will mention the exceptions in a moment). If you stop and think about it, you will easily understand why. From a chemical standpoint, once the molecular structure has been determined, all substances that conform to that structure will have the same function. Ascorbic acid is ascorbic acid. The only difference, depending on the purity, might be the trace impurities that could be present.
Another way to look at this is that all vitamins and essential minerals have that designation because they are essential to life and must be obtained from outside sources. We cannot make vitamin C by ourselves; we have to obtain it from food (or supplements). What happens if we fail to obtain adequate levels of any particular vitamin? We develop a “deficiency disease.” Rickets, Beriberi, Pellagra, Scurvy to name a few. One of the best known is scurvy, resulting from a vitamin C deficiency. The fact is that you can cure scurvy equally well with food rich in vitamin C as well as “synthetic,” pure vitamin C in supplement form. What better proof can we ask for?
As we said in our book, “With a few exceptions-such as vitamin E, natural beta-carotene, and vitamin B12-all of the vitamins used in dietary supplements are synthetic.” Why are there exceptions? The answer lies in the fact that substances like vitamin E do not actually have only one molecular structure–they exist in nature as a mixture of isomers, and each isomer can have a slightly different action–tocopherols differ from tocotrienols, for example. So we suggest looking for vitamin supplements that specify natural vitamin E (d-alpha-tocopherol, or mixed tocopherols, natural beta carotene, etc).
Mixing synthetic vitamins with food concentrates, yeast cultures and other “grown” substances may be nice in the sense that you have the benefit of other healthy nutrients and accessory food factors in the mixture, but be cautious when this is accompanied by claims that the process in some ways alters the inherent potency or activity of the vitamin itself. This is often done, because when you include a significant amount of food concentrates in the tablet, the actual quantity of the vitamins must decrease.
So the choice is yours–either low vitamin/mineral potency, with the benefit of added food concentrates and extracts, or high vitamin/mineral potency, without the extract food concentrates. You can’t have it both ways.
For therapeutic purposes, the high potency is often more important. You can always supplement with a “green drink” smoothie, or something similar if you are not able to get your other food factors from a healthy diet.
As far as finding the methods used to synthesize vitamins, I used to use a book titled “The Merck Index.” I assume it is still available.
(3) “Given the lack of regulation by the FDA.” Oh, do I hate to see this statement. Please, please stop repeating this inane, incorrect and misleading statement. The correct statement, when appropriate, is that dietary supplements are not regulated by the FDA the same way drugs are regulated. Which is only to be expected, as you can make therapeutic claims for drugs, and you cannot make therapeutic claims for food supplements. The agency is not called The Food and Drug Administration without good reason. Regulations are in place to adequately regulate the purity, potency, safety etc of food supplements. Check the reference articles in the http://www.willner.com reference library section for more information, or go to http://www.crnusa.org
Don Goldberg, R.Ph.
Many years ago, when food allergies was gaining recognition as the cause for most of what ails mankind, a “hypoallergenic” vitamin C product was heavily marketed to alternative physicians. It was claimed to be made from a non-corn derived source of vitamin C.
Corn? Is vitamin C made from corn? And, if so, would that mean that people who are allergic to corn should be concerned about this?
Well, as it turns out, in the process of synthesizing vitamin c (ascorbic acid), one of the initial “building blocks” of the ascorbic acid molecule is glucose. Where did they get the glucose? From corn syrup. So corn syrup was one of the starting materials, and after a number of chemical reactions, separations and purifications, they ended up with pure ascorbic acid, or vitamin C. A pure, white crystalline powder.
Was there any corn in that pure vitamin C. Hard to believe. And, when someone is allergic to corn (or anything else for that matter), they are allergic to the protein, not the carbohydrate, fat, ash, etc in the offending material. Was there any corn protein (from the corn syrup starting material) left in the final, purified, white crystalline ascorbic acid? Hard to believe.
But they sold a lot of non-corn ascorbic acid.