Can Our Bodies Tell The Difference Between Synthetic And Natural Vitamins?
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By Fiona Riddle
Many Americans do not obtain enough nutrients from their diet alone, leading to supplementation and fortification. While there is scientific evidence that some supplements can provide health benefits, synthetic vitamins may not contribute the same benefits as their natural counterparts and, in some cases, can worsen conditions.
Natural vitamins are found in foods such as fruits, vegetables, fish, meat, eggs and dairy. They are also found in our environment, for example vitamin D synthesis in the body occurs from direct sunlight on the skin. It is even believed that our bodies can absorb beneficial minerals from natural water sources such as going for a swim in the ocean.
Synthetic vitamins are compounds created in a lab that isolate and mimic natural vitamins and are sometimes referred to as “synthetic nutrients”. Most commercial vitamins and supplements are synthetic because they are easier and cheaper to produce than natural options.
“…our bodies may respond differently to a synthetic form of vitamin A versus naturally derived vitamin A…”
While synthetic vitamins are often more affordable and accessible, it is not clear if our bodies recognize and utilize them in the same way that they do natural vitamins. Vitamins made artificially in a lab are almost chemically identical to those found in nature, however they are created in a different way than a plant or animal would. This means that our bodies may respond differently to a synthetic form of vitamin A versus naturally derived vitamin A from, for example, cod liver.
“It may be that the nutrients in nature work synergistically to provide benefits, not one single compound isolated from the rest.”
Additionally, nutrients found in nature are a part of a complex food matrix, and isolation of just one piece of this matrix may reduce the total benefits. When we consume foods in nature such as an orange, our bodies absorb numerous vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and enzymes. In contrast, when we consume a synthetic vitamin C supplement, our bodies miss out on all of the other molecules compounds that come packed in an orange. It is likely that the nutrients in nature work synergistically to provide benefits, not one single compound isolated from the rest.
There is also the question of if our bodies can absorb synthetic nutrients in the same way as natural nutrients. A small randomized control trial found that natural B vitamins had a “slightly stronger effect than the synthetic analogues” and another comparative study found natural vitamin E to be twice as bioavailable as the synthetic version. Other studies, however, have found no differences in the availability of synthetic nutrients when compared to their natural counterparts such as with vitamin C. Based off of the current research, I believe each nutrient may differ in its bioavailability when comparing synthetic versus natural.
“An increased bioavailability allows the body to absorb more nutrients from a smaller quantity, however it also leads to the potential of over ingestion of nutrients.”
Folic acid, the synthetic form of folate, has actually been found to be more bioavailable than the natural form. This means that our bodies will absorb more supplemental folic acid than folate from our food, which may have benefits as well as disadvantages. An increased bioavailability allows the body to absorb more nutrients from a smaller quantity, however it also leads to the potential of over ingestion of nutrients. Over consumption of isolated vitamins may be detrimental to health in some instances or simply result in the excretion of excess nutrients from the body.
Since there is mixed evidence and a lack of complete certainty with regards to supplements, consumers must make personalized decisions about their health. We do know, however, that a diet made up predominantly of whole foods incurs many benefits. Obtaining adequate nutrients from a wide range of foods such as fresh fruit and vegetables, eggs and dairy provides benefits not only from the vitamins, but from the antioxidants, minerals, fiber and other nutrients present as well.
“…utilizing whole food supplements may be a better way to ensure proper absorption of nutrients…”
Additionally, utilizing whole food supplements may be a better way to ensure proper absorption of nutrients and prevent subsequent deficiencies or surpluses. Camu camu, for example, is a type of berry rich in vitamin C and its powder can be used in place of isolated vitamin C supplements. While supplements can ensure that you get adequate amounts of essential nutrients, they should not be considered as an alternative to a balanced diet. As their name suggests, they should be a supplement to a well-rounded diet full of nutrient dense whole foods.
Fiona Riddle is a Certified Health Coach with a degree in Psychology from UCLA. She is passionate about a holistic approach to health when working with her private coaching clients. She is an avid cook, constantly creating and sharing new recipes on her Instagram (@feelgoodwithfi) to showcase simple clean home cooking. She has helped clients take their health into their own hands and successfully boost their energy and confidence through sustainable lifestyle changes. www.feelgoodwithfi.com