It’s a common conception that natural is best, but is this always true? When it comes to nutritional supplements, a lot of manufacturers opt for synthetic vitamins, but why do they do this? Synthetics often get a bad rap because they aren’t natural, but do they deserve such a denigrated reputation? In this post, we’ll explore the difference between natural vs synthetic vitamins and aim to answer these questions.
What Are Vitamins?
Many people refer to all supplements as vitamins but though supplements contain vitamins, they also contain other ingredients that aren’t vitamins, such as herbs and extracts. Vitamins are essential chemical compounds that the body uses for various processes. In this case, “essential” means that the body does not synthesize these vitamins and we must get these nutrients from food. There are 13 vitamins: A, B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B7, B9, B12, C, D, E, K. However, each vitamin can have various forms. For example, Vitamin B9, Folate, is often referred to by the name of its synthetic variant: Folic Acid.
What Are Synthetic Vitamins?
Synthetic vitamins are not derived directly from plant or animal sources but are instead created in laboratories. The rationale behind their production lies in their specific chemical structures. Scientists have deciphered these structures and developed methods to recreate them using chemical reactions. For example, while citrus fruits are the natural source of Vitamin C, its synthetic counterpart is often crafted from fermented sugar solutions and then subjected to various controlled chemical processes until it is reaches the desired chemical composition.
Why Do Manufacturers Use Synthetic Vitamins?
Manufacturers often choose synthetic vitamins for a number of reasons:
- Cost-Effectiveness: Synthesizing vitamins in a lab can be more cost-effective than extracting them from natural sources, which can be an intensive process. This allows manufacturers to provide lower-cost supplements for their customers.
- Purity: Synthetic processes can create vitamins that are free from contaminants that might be found in natural sources.
- Control: Producing vitamins in a lab allows for control over the final product, ensuring that the vitamin is in the desired form and free from potential allergens that might cause reactions in sensitive individuals.
Natural vs Synthetic Vitamins: The Main Differences
- Bioavailability: Natural vitamins often come with other beneficial compounds like antioxidants and minerals which can increase their bioavailability, meaning the body can absorb and use them better (1). Synthetic vitamins, being isolated compounds, don’t have these beneficial co-factors unless they are specifically added in. On the other hand, some synthetic vitamins, such as Folic Acid, are formulated to be more readily absorbed by the body, though this varies by the specific vitamin and its form (2).
- Safety: Both natural and synthetic vitamins can be safe when taken in recommended amounts. However, overdosing on certain synthetic vitamins can lead to toxic build-up, while it’s much harder to overdose on vitamins from natural food sources (3).
- Efficacy: Some studies suggest that the body might respond differently to natural versus synthetic vitamins. For instance, a research study found that natural Vitamin E is absorbed and utilized more effectively than its synthetic counterpart (4). However, a different study found that there was no significant difference between natural and synthetic Vitamin B for raising serum levels, though natural vitamins did produce more favorable outcomes (5)
Natural vs Synthetic Vitamins: Which Is Better?
The answer isn’t clear-cut. While there’s a lot of appeal to natural vitamins because they come from food sources and often offer co-factors and other beneficial compounds, synthetic vitamins are not inherently bad. They provide a consistent, controlled, and sometimes more affordable way to ensure you’re getting the vitamins you need, especially if you have dietary restrictions or allergies.
However, when opting for synthetic vitamins, it’s crucial to choose high-quality supplements from reputable brands. The FDA does not regulate supplements as strictly as they do medications, so not all supplements are created equal. Always do your research and consult with a healthcare professional.
When weighing natural vs synthetic vitamins, the best choice depends on individual needs, preferences, and circumstances. Both have roles in health, but a balanced diet rich in whole foods should be your primary vitamin source. Supplement as recommended by your doctor and always prioritize quality and safety above all else.
Want to learn how to find safe and effective supplements? Read our post titled Regulation In An Unregulated World to discover the Approved Science® difference.