Not all vitamins are the same, no matter what the supplement companies tell you. When you hear vitamin, you most likely think of the words “natural” and “healthy”. But did you know there are synthetic versions, lab created vitamins as well? In fact, they make up over 90% of all vitamin supplements consumed today. It’s not much of a surprise either, considering that synthetic supplements are more profitable, faster to produce and have a longer shelf life. But synthetic vitamin supplements can’t be that bad, can they?
Vitamins – Synthetic vs Organic
Synthetic vitamins are imitations of real vitamins, seeking to mimic what the organic, plant-based vitamin will do in the body. While synthetic vitamins might be molecularly identical to organic vitamins, naturally occurring vitamins in plants are accompanied by certain cofactors, and other vitamins and minerals that aid the body in absorption and metabolism (1). You will never find in nature a plant that only contains Vitamin C, rather it will contain a myriad of other important substances that act synergistically to be of most use to the body and provide the body what it needs. Here in lies one main problem with many synthetic vitamins, they lack the unique cofactors, enzymes and other vitamins and minerals that the body needs in order to metabolize and use the vitamin; thus often storing the synthetic vitamin throughout the body which can lead to toxicity (1).
Synthetic vitamins can deprive the body of other substances. During metabolism, the body will attempt to tap into its own stores of vitamins, minerals and enzymes that the synthetic vitamin is missing (1). While this is an amazing ability, it can eventually lead to deficiencies in those areas and other complications. We can liken a synthetic vitamin to gasoline, a very important liquid to run an automobile. If you only continue to put gasoline into your car, but never replace the oil and other important fluids, the car will only be able to operate for so long before it stops. When you ingest vitamins and minerals in their whole-food form, you not only are putting gasoline into the car, but also topping off the oil, the transmission fluid, the brake fluid, etc.
Synthetic vitamins can also compromise immunity. In some instances, the body sees the synthetic supplement as foreign and treat it just like other foreign invaders – by launching a leukocyte attack. Thus, consuming large doses of synthetic supplements can actually distract the immune system’s forces away from other more life threatening intruders such as bacteria and viruses.
What are synthetic vitamins made from?
Synthetic Vitamin A – Retinyl palmitate or retinyl acetate. This synthetic is made from combining fish or palm oil with beta-ionone (2)
Synthetic Vitamin B1 – Thiamine mononitrate or thiamine hydrochloride is made from coal tar, ammonia, acetone, and hydrochloric acid (2)
Synthetic Vitamin B2 – Synthetic riboflavin is made with acetic acid and nitrogen or using genetically modified bacteria and fermentation (2)
Synthetic Vitamin B3 – Nicotinic acid is created using coal tar, ammonia, acids, 3-cyanopyridine, and formaldehyde (2)
Synthetic Vitamin B5 – Pantothenic acid involves isobutyraldehyde and formaldehyde to form a calcium or sodium salt (2)
Synthetic Vitamin B6 – Pyridoxine hydrochloride comes from petroleum ester, hydrochloric acid, and formaldehyde (2)
Synthetic Vitamin B9 – Folic acid from petroleum derivatives, acids, and acetylene (2)
Synthetic Vitamin B12 – Cobalt and cyanide are fermented to make cyanocobalamin (2)
Synthetic Choline – Choline chloride or choline bitartrate is made using ethylene, ammonia, and hydrochloric acid or tartaric acid (2)
Synthetic Vitamin C – Ascorbic acid is an isolated vitamin from genetically modified corn sugar that is hydrogenated and processed with acetone (2)
Synthetic Vitamin D – obtained from irradiated animal fat (2)
Synthetic Vitamin E – The synthetic dl-alpha tocopherol is created using refined oils, trimethylhydroquinone, and isophytol (2)
Synthetic Vitamin K – Menadione, comes from coal tar derivatives and genetically modified and hydrogenated soybean oil, and uses hydrochloric acid and nickel (2)
Currently, there is a new movement away from synthetic vitamins to plant-based vitamins and minerals and there seems to be good reason to do so. But one last cautionary note: Be careful with vitamins labeled as natural. Labeling laws allow the phrase “natural” to be assigned to anything so long as it contains at least 10% naturally occurring materials. That means up to 90% can be various other synthetic substances and chemicals.
Of course, we believe the best thing to do is to eat a plant-based diet, full of a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts and seeds. This beats any vitamin supplement, be it plant-based or synthetic. Some circumstances make it necessary to take vitamin supplements; just choose wisely.
(1) – Clement, B.R. (2009) Supplements exposed: The truth they don’t want you to know about vitamins, minerals, and their effects on your health. United States: New Page Books.