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Synthetic Vitamins vs Whole Food Vitamins: Are They the Same?

By Sasha de Beausset Aparicio, MSc

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Synthetic Vitamins vs Whole Food Vitamins
Synthetic vs Whole Food

Supporters of synthetic vitamins argue that the source of a nutrient (multivitamin, mineral, amino acid) should not be relevant as long as it is chemically identical to how the nutrient occurs in nature. Why? Because according to them, the body cannot differentiate a nutrient from a natural source from a nutrient that was made in a lab. 

This reasoning is not only flawed, but it is also deliberately misleading because it does not account for the following facts.

15 Reasons Why Natural Vitamins Are Better Than Synthetic Vitamins

  1. Synthetic vitamins can have the same chemical composition but still have a different shape (optical activity).[1]
  2. There are likely many mechanisms and pathways implicated in the assimilation of nutrients, and not all of them are related to their chemical structure.
  3. Some of the proteins required for the breakdown of nutrients will only work for nutrients with the correct shape.
  4. The factors that influence the retention of a distinct nutrient are not limited just to the nature of that nutrient, but also to its interaction with other nutrients (e.g., co-factors).
  5. Most synthetic nutrients are crystalline in appearance whereas most natural nutrients are actually in a complex matrix which also includes fiber, enzymes, carbohydrates, proteins, minerals, trace elements, coenzymes, amino acids, fatty acids, antioxidants and other unknown factors.[2]
  6. The process of constructing complete nutrient using the body’s nutrient reserves coupled with the laborious process of eliminating the unusable isolates negates what little benefits synthetic vitamin isolates have to offer.
  7. The body does not possess a mechanism for breaking down synthetic nutrients that have a modified shape; as a consequence, most of these synthetic nutrients will pass through the body with little or no absorption.[3]
  8. A natural nutrient is complete and includes all of the trace minerals and cofactors required for its optimal absorption in the body whereas a synthetic nutrient is isolated and incomplete.
  9. Nutrients in nature are smaller in size than lab-created vitamins, minerals, and amino acids and smaller particles are better assimilated than larger ones.[4]
  10. Synthetic vitamins that the body cannot use must be removed, like all other bodily wastes, through excretory organs like the skin and kidneys; this adds to the overall burden on the body.
  11. To use a deficient nutrient, the body has to reconstruct it by borrowing cofactors from natural reserves; this can lead to nutrient depletion and overall deficiency.
  12. The quality of natural nutrients trumps the mega quantities of synthetic nutrient isolates, most of which will be excreted from the body without providing any real benefits.
  13. The raw materials used to create synthetic nutrients in a lab can increase the toxic load on the body leading to potential adverse reactions; this is not a risk associated with nutrients sourced from organic foods.
  14. While some synthetic versions of natural nutrients have pharmacological activity similar to natural nutrients, some have no beneficial activity in the body. Others are vitamin antagonists, and some actually produce a deficiency of the specific vitamin they are analogs of, and this differs based on the vitamin.
  15. It is wrong, if not immoral, to claim that synthetic vitamin isolates are used in much the same way as natural vitamins from foods given that the substances used to synthesize them are known toxins.

For a better understanding of the concept, let’s consider the example of natural Vitamin C[5] extracted from Indian gooseberry (Amla) versus isolated Ascorbic Acid manufactured in a lab from genetically modified corn.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C exists in nature as a complex that is composed of bioactive molecules that work well together to provide therapeutic benefits. However, because these bioactive constituents are susceptible to oxidation, plants that produce Vitamin C (e.g., Indian gooseberry) enclose these active compounds with a shell of ascorbic acid. 

On the other hand, ascorbic acid constitutes only about 5%[6] of the vitamin complex, is often used as a marker compound to identify the presence of Vitamin C in a food source, and is wrongly used interchangeably with Vitamin C on product labels. 

The source of the synthetic, isolated ascorbic acid notwithstanding, it is imperative to note that ascorbic acid lacks critical bioactive composites found in natural sources of Vitamin C and, therefore, cannot be expected to deliver the same range of advantages that a Vitamin C complex is capable of providing.

Natural Amino Acids vs Synthetic Amino Acids

Amino Acids

Here is another example, this time two amino acids: Amino Acid Q (L-Glutamine) and GABA.

While L-Glutamine is the natural form of the conditional amino acid, an ingredient by the name of GABA is a synthetic product[7] that increases calm in the neurotransmitter of the same name. The problem with using this synthetic ingredient is that your body responds to it like it would any other external chemical source; it increases the activity of the neurotransmitter Gamma Aminobutyric Acid but does nothing to really build or replenish it. 

The only way to naturally produce the brain chemical GABA is through the use of the amino acid L-Glutamine. People who are taking the product GABA will get a brief feeling of calmness,[8] but will eventually need to change to L-Glutamine to rebuild the GABA levels naturally.

As you can see, it is not just illogical and irresponsible to imply that synthetic nutrients [isolates] are the same as natural nutrients and recommend them as acceptable alternatives to whole-food and food-sourced supplements, it is downright unethical. 

The only benefit of synthetic nutrients is that they are inexpensive to make, and hence, affordable for the vast majority of users, but the long-term damage to the body from the consumption of products with synthetic vitamin isolates could far outweigh the small price savings.

The Bottom Line

synthetic vitamins

While some companies (and possibly consumers) may argue that consuming synthetic vitamins isolates is better than not taking a multivitamin at all, we beg to differ. Because synthetic vitamin isolates can cause nutrient depletion and, in some cases, adverse reactions/outcomes, not consuming a multivitamin is actually better than consuming one that is chock-full of synthetic ingredients manufactured using industrial chemicals and solvents.

The common sense argument against consuming synthetic vitamin isolates is quite simply that every one of us would choose, without hesitation, food-sourced vitamins over synthetic vitamins isolates every single time if they were provided with the information on the source of the synthetic nutrients in a multivitamin product.

Reference Sources