Natural Vs Synthetic Vitamins, What's The Difference?
NATURAL VS SYNTHETIC VITAMINS
Supplements can be good for your health and even reduce your risk of death. I recommend taking them.
However, you need to take the RIGHT sort of vitamins for it to benefit your health. (1)
If you’re taking the wrong type of supplements you could be doing yourself more harm than good.
The most important thing to know is the difference between natural vs synthetic vitamins.
And, that’s why we’re here!
Here’s an overview of everything you need to know about natural vs synthetic vitamins - so you have the knowledge to make the right choice for your body.
NATURAL VS SYNTHETIC VITAMINS: WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE?
So, what IS the difference between natural vs synthetic vitamins?
To cut a long story short:
- ‘Natural’ vitamins are those which are identical to the forms found in our food or body.
- ‘Synthetic’ vitamins are made in a laboratory - otherwise known as ‘man-made’. They tend to be a slightly different shaped molecule to the natural version.
It’s important to remember that ‘natural’ is not a protected term. Anyone can claim their supplements or products are natural.
But in the context of natural vs synthetic vitamins - it’s important to recognise the difference. Your health depends on it.
WHICH ARE BETTER FOR YOUR BODY: NATURAL OR SYNTHETIC VITAMINS?
Naturally you’re now asking yourself: “OK, so which are better for me - natural or synthetic vitamins?”
The answer depends on the vitamin we’re talking about, whether you have a health condition which means you need a certain form of the vitamin, etc.
But, as a general rule, natural vitamins tend to be better for you than synthetic vitamins. (2)
WHY ARE NATURAL VITAMINS BETTER THAN SYNTHETIC?1. Bioavailability
This means how well you’re able to absorb the nutrient.
Synthetic vitamins tend to have a lower bioavailability compared to natural forms of nutrients.
But synthetic vitamins can actually be TOO easy to absorb - which can also have negative health effects. (More on than later!)
How much of an effect the vitamin has on your body.
For instance, many synthetic forms of supplements may be easily absorbed but have a weak effect on your body
Synthetic vitamins are usually not the exact same shaped molecule as the natural form.
This means they may bind more weakly to receptors or enzymes - meaning you might need a higher dose to have the same effect as a natural form.
This is how the vitamins are ‘packaged’ and delivered to your body.
Natural vitamins may be delivered in a whole food form while synthetic vitamins are usually isolated.
5 COMMON SYNTHETIC VITAMINS TO AVOID
The majority of supplements use synthetic forms of nutrients.
Synthetic vitamins tend to be:
- Easier to produce in high quantities
- Smaller due to being isolated - hence can fit into smaller supplement pills
BUT HOW DO YOU SPOT A SYNTHETIC VITAMIN WHEN YOU'RE NEXT BUYING YOUR SUPPLEMENTS?
It’s not always simple to spot the natural vs synthetic vitamins with all the different chemical names and the millions of ingredients!
So here’s a short guide on some common synthetic vitamins to avoid:1. Vitamin A
Synthetic: Retinyl Palmitate
Natural: ß-carotene or “provitamin A”
You can get vitamin A in two forms: (3)
- "Provitamin A" carotenoids such as ß-carotene - found in plant foods.
- "Preformed vitamin A" - found in many supplements, animal foods and fortified foods.
There are 3 reasons to avoid preformed vitamin A:
- High intake of total vitamin A or retinol can increase hip fracture risk (while high intake of some carotenoids can reduce hip fracture risk). (4)
- Can be toxic in high doses as it accumulates in the liver. (5)
- Synthetic vitamin A supplements can cause birth defects in babies. (6)
2. Vitamin B12: Cyanocobalamin
Natural: Methylcobalamin, Hydroxocobalamin, or Adenosylcobalamin
There are 4 forms of B12 you need to know about:
- the most common form of B12 found in fortified foods and supplements
And, yes, it does contain cyanide.
For most people, this probably isn’t an issue. (That’s what your detoxification system is for, after all.)
For other people, high-dose cyanocobalamin could result in toxicity if you can’t excrete the cyanide – for example in patients with renal failure. (7)
3. Folic Acid: Pteroylglutamic Acid
Synthetic: Pteroylglutamic Acid
Natural: Methylfolate, Folinic acid
Folate is found naturally in dark leafy greens and pulses.
Folate is usually in supplements and fortified foods as a synthetic form called ‘folic acid’. (8)
But there’s a big problem with this…
A third of the population lack a genetic enzyme called MTHFR which converts folic acid to the form your body needs - L-methylfolate. (9),(10)
In other words, people with MTHFR can’t use synthetic folic acid! They can absorb it - but their body can’t make use of it.
To make matters worse, synthetic folic acid can even block your body from using the natural folate from your food. (11)
On the other hand, everyone can utilise the natural form of folate - methylfolate.
4. Vitamin E
Synthetic: dl-alpha tocopherol, dl-alpha tocopherol acetate or succinate Natural: alpha-, beta-, gamma-, and delta-tocopherols and alpha-, beta-, gamma-, and delta-tocotrienols
Vitamin E is a bit of an anomaly in the vitamin world.
Natural vitamin E includes eight chemically distinct molecules! These are:
The synthetic dl-alpha tocopherol is created using refined oils, trimethylhydroquinone, and isophytol. It is not as easily absorbed, doesn’t stay as long in tissues, and is quickly dispelled like a toxin or unknown chemical.
On the other hand, natural vitamin E has roughly twice the availability of synthetic vitamin E. (12)
But even if we’re talking about natural vitamin E, more than 95% of all studies on vitamin E are about just one of the eight natural forms - alpha-tocopherol! (13)
This could almost still be called ‘synthetic’ because it has been synthetically isolated from the other 7 forms.
This might explain why the evidence for supplementing vitamin E on health is so mixed - with some studies finding that higher dose vitamin E supplements may be harmful. (13),(14)
Actually, one study even found that a low dose (<400 IU/d) of vitamin E combined with other nutrients has a much greater positive impact on health. (15)
Basically it’s best to consume vitamin E in its natural form!
5. Vitamin C
Synthetic: Ascorbic acid
Natural: Ascorbic acid
Vitamin C is actually the same molecule - whether it’s natural or synthetic.
The difference is that synthetic vitamin C is an isolated vitamin.
Why does this matter??
We know isolated ascorbic acid has good antioxidant properties.
But then consider an apple.
The vitamin C in an apple accounts for only 0.4% of the total antioxidant activity if we just look at the vitamin C alone. (16)
It turns out there’s a synergistic effect of the vitamins and phytochemicals in whole foods which are responsible for their potent antioxidant and anticancer activities.
Synthetic vitamin C does not include the flavonoids and phytonutrients that help it work.
Some other synthetic vitamins to avoid are:
- Choline: Choline Chloride, Choline Bitartrate
- Vitamin C (Ascorbic Acid): Ascorbic Acid
- Vitamin D: Irradiated Ergosterol, Calciferol
- Vitamin B1 (Thiamine): Thiamine Mononitrate, Thiamine Hydrochloride
- Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin): Riboflavin
- Pantothenic Acid: Calcium D-Pantothenate
- Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine): Pyridoxine Hydrochloride
- PABA (Para-aminobenzoic Acid): Aminobenzoic Acid
5 HARMFUL INGREDIENTS CONTAINED IN SYNTHETIC SUPPLEMENTS
It’s not only the FORMS of vitamins you should be wary of when considering whether to buy natural vs synthetic vitamins.
Synthetic supplements also tend to contain other harmful ingredients to be aware of.
These are additives or preservatives which give the supplements a long shelf life or make them easier to produce.
Let’s go through some of the most important…
1. Titanium dioxide (E 171)
Titanium oxide can increase oxidative stress, inflammation and might be related to carcinogenesis. (17)
It can accumulate in some internal organs, like spleen, liver, and kidneys.
However, as most of the studies were carried out using animal models, we need more evidence in humans before we can deem it safe for consumption. (18)
2. Aluminum (E 173)
Aluminium is a neurotoxic substance that has been found in high levels in the brain tissues of Alzheimer's disease, epilepsy and autism patients. (19),(20)
It’s important to note that aluminium is present in lots of different foods and pharmaceuticals you might consume - not just supplements. It can even be high in your drinking water.
If your levels of aluminium intake are ‘normal’, your body can get rid of it. But if you consume too much it can accumulate.
3. Magnesium stearate (E 572)
Magnesium stearate is used to delay breakdown and absorption of supplements so they’re absorbed in the correct area of the bowel.
It’s authorised as a food additive with no safety concerns. (21)
However, exposure to magnesium stearate as an additive via multiple sources may be of concern. (22)
Though uncommon, it is also possible to be allergic to magnesium stearate - so some people should definitely avoid it. (23)
4. Sodium benzoate (E 211)
Sodium benzoate could be involved in contact allergic reactions - especially on the skin, such as dermatitis. (24),(25)
Cell-based studies also suggest that sodium benzoate can trigger DNA damage. (26)
Studies in mice suggest that it may be harmful if regulations regarding its limit of consumption are mistakenly or deliberately ignored (which can easily happen with supplement manufacturers). (27)
We need more evidence of the effects of sodium benzoate in humans - but the evidence we do have isn’t a good start.
5. Carrageenan (E 407)
As of 2018, carrageenan was deemed non-toxic under certain consumption levels (75 mg/kg bw per day) - although further research was recommended. (28)
However, it’s since been found that carrageenan may play a role in inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD). (29)
Although evidence is still limited, a diet low in carrageenan might help prevent relapse of disease in IBD such as Crohn’s or Colitis. (30)
Another additive, carboxymethylcellulose (E 466), has similarly been related to intestinal inflammation. (31)
TO SUM IT UP......
In the debate of natural vs synthetic vitamins, synthetic vitamins may have their place as cheap and easy to produce.
However, natural vitamins are by far superior in almost all cases.
Natural forms of vitamins tend to be more expensive as they are derived from whole foods.
If you care about your health - it’s worth it!
- Schwingshackl L, Boeing H, Stelmach-Mardas M, Gottschald M, Dietrich S, Hoffmann G, et al. Dietary Supplements and Risk of Cause-Specific Death, Cardiovascular Disease, and Cancer: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Primary Prevention Trials. Adv Nutr [Internet]. 2017 Jan 17 [cited 2022 Jan 5];8(1). Available from:https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28096125/
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- Knapik JJ, Hoedebecke SS. Vitamin A and Bone Fractures: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. J Spec Oper Med [Internet]. 2021 [cited 2022 Jan 5];21(2). Available from:https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34105132/
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- Spence JD. B vitamin therapy for homocysteine: renal function and vitamin B12 determine cardiovascular outcomes. Clin Chem Lab Med [Internet]. 2013 Mar 1 [cited 2022 Jan 5];51(3). Available from:https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23449527/
- Maruvada P, Stover PJ, Mason JB, Bailey RL, Davis CD, Field MS, et al. Knowledge gaps in understanding the metabolic and clinical effects of excess folates/folic acid: a summary, and perspectives, from an NIH workshop. Am J Clin Nutr [Internet]. 2020 Nov 11 [cited 2022 Jan 5];112(5). Available from:https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33022704/
- Leahy LG. Vitamin B Supplementation: What’s the Right Choice for Your Patients? J Psychosoc Nurs Ment Health Serv [Internet]. 2017 Jul 1 [cited 2022 Jan 5];55(7). Available from:https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28671236/
- Stengler M. The Role of Folate and MTHFR Polymorphisms in the Treatment of Depression. Altern Ther Health Med [Internet]. 2021 Mar [cited 2022 Jan 5];27(2). Available from:https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32827402/
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- Burton GW, Traber MG, Acuff RV, Walters DN, Kayden H, Hughes L, et al. Human plasma and tissue alpha-tocopherol concentrations in response to supplementation with deuterated natural and synthetic vitamin E. Am J Clin Nutr [Internet]. 1998 Apr [cited 2022 Jan 5];67(4). Available from:https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9537614/
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- Jiang S, Pan Z, Li H, Li F, Song Y, Qiu Y. Meta-analysis: low-dose intake of vitamin E combined with other vitamins or minerals may decrease all-cause mortality. J Nutr Sci Vitaminol [Internet]. 2014 [cited 2022 Jan 5];60(3). Available from:https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25078376/
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