Tuesday, May 31, 2011

"Natural" vs. "Synthetic": Does It Really Matter?

Its not unusual for the makers of natural vitamins to tout their superiority over synthetic alternatives. There are undoubted advantages to organic, "naturally" grown produce and animal products. But do the same considerations apply to vitamins and nutritional supplements? Are "natural" vitamins worth paying a price premium for?

In reality, the question of what is "natural" and what is not can be complex. For example, Vitamin C that is extracted from starch in a laboratory can be called "natural", since the starch is a "natural" plant product. Most biochemists agree that the Vitamin C extracted from starch is identical to the Vitamin C in your glass of orange juice. Drs. Linus Pauling, Ewan Cameron, Robert Cathcart and others have established that very high doses of factory-made ascorbic acid vitamin C work just fine against viral and bacterial illness. And laboratory-made "synthetic" vitamins have several significant advantages, including:
  • Chemical purity. Laboratory-produced nutrients are "USP grade," meaning that they come from licensed production laboratories and meet the rigid standards of the United States Pharmacopeia.
  • Dose consistency. In nature, one orange may contain 40 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. The laboratory-produced product will be the same every time.
  • The ability to vary the concentration of the vitamin to match the needs of a particular individual.
On the other hand, not all synthetic nutrients are chemically identical to their "in the wild" counterparts. The best example of this is probably Vitamin E. Vitamin E derived from vegetable oils and other natural sources is chemically different from the synthetic form. Because of this difference, with the synthetic form of vitamin E, you obtain an effective dose of about half the vitamin E dosage reported on the label. Aside from this precaution, most synthetically made vitamins and many other nutrients are either identical to their "wild-type" counterparts or easily converted to the wild-type in the human body. Also, most synthetic vitamins and nutrients are both cheaper and purer, with less potential for contamination.

Another often cited advantage of the natural form is the presence of nutritional "co-factors". To oversimplify, a co-factor is a substance that increases the absorption or effectiveness of the primary nutrient by its simultaneous presence. The Vitamin D added to milk to enhance the absorption of calcium is a familiar example.
When Vitamin C was first isolated and produced in a supplement form, nutrition scientists did not know about bioflavonoids. It was found that in nature bioflavonoids always accompany Vitamin C. In fact, the bioflavonoids are essential for better absorption and can increase bioavailability by as much as 30%. However, this advantage is lost when the Vitamin C is extracted and reprocessed into a supplement.

Quality in vitamins and nutrients is extremely hard to quantify. One should not rely on claims of "better quality" unless some definition of that term is given, together with some measurement data. Similarly "all natural" may be good marketing, but it is not necessarily always good science.

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