Synthetic supplements – A fine compromise ?

December 27, 2016

More than 95% of all the vitamin supplements sold today fall into the synthetic category.

If this statement has caught your attention, the following questions should matter to you – What exactly is in your vitamins? How to tell synthetic vitamins apart from those derived from natural sources? If you care enough to take a vitamin, you should be concerned about what goes in it.

There are basically just two ways to synthesize vitamins – from natural sources, which can be food or nature, or chemicals.

Synthetic vitamins were originally developed because they cost less. They are manufactured with chemicals and are made to imitate the way natural vitamins act in our bodies. They are isolated entities not normally in the same chemical form as vitamins found in nature. Quite appallingly, most vitamins in supplements are actually petroleum extracts, coal tar derivatives, and chemically processed sugar, processed with other acids and industrial chemicals:

Synthetic Vitamin A (Beta-carotene) is usually derived by using methanol, benzene, petroleum esters, acetylene and refined oils. Synthetic Vitamin C may be from hydrogenated sugar processed with acetone. For synthetic B vitamins – coal tar, hydrochloric acid, acetonitrile, acetic acid, isobutyraldehyde are commonly used with formaldehyde and petroleum esters.

Natural vitamins are derived directly from plant material containing the vitamin. Unlike synthetic ones, vitamins from natural sources come in packages with other vitamins, enzymes and minerals. Nature being always more complex and dynamic than a chemistry lab, man just cannot duplicate what nature endows. Natural vitamin packages are in nature’s proportions, they work and interact harmoniously so our bodies can recognize, metabolize and use them to make what it needs. Vitamins found naturally are also never isolated.


Should then our vitamins be derived from natural sources or has chemistry made synthetic vitamin a fine compromise?

The synthetic product is always a simple chemical substance, while the natural is a complex mixture of synergistic factors.

Fractionated, synthetic vitamins being chemically and structurally different from their natural analogues, tend to be less preferentially absorbed and/or retained by the body. Since synthetic vitamins are isolated, they lack the transporters and co-factors that enhance absorption by the body. As such, vitamins derived from food or nature are functionally superior to synthetic ones and may have better effects on maintaining aspects of health.

Vitamins which cannot be used by the body are either stored until you obtain or create the nutrients required to use them effectively or else excreted from the body. This is especially so for fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. These, when taken as their synthetic forms can build up in your fatty tissues if unabsorbed and cause toxicity.


Natural is better in the case of Vitamin E:

Vitamin E occurs naturally as the d-alpha-tocopherol, the “d-form”. The synthetic version of Vitamin E is dl-alpha-tocopherol often referred to as the “dl-form”. The dl-form is a combination of the d-form and the l-form. However, the l-form does not confer any known health benefit to the body, the body does not use it and excretes it. In essence, when one consumes the dl-form of vitamin E, you obtain an effective dose of about half the vitamin E dosage reported on the label.

Natural is better in the case of Vitamin A (Beta-carotene):

Natural beta-carotene occurs along with multiple carotenoids and chlorophyll in plants rich in vitamin A like carrots, yellow and green leafy vegetables, and turmeric, and not as a single compound. Natural vitamin A primarily exists in the form of retinyl esters whereas synthetic vitamin A is a retinol, synthesized from methanol and looks chemically very different to the body. Bearing little resemblance to its natural-self, its absorption and assimilation is uncertain. Therefore, it is not known if synthetic beta-carotene would provide similar health benefits as beta-carotene from natural sources.

Getting short-changed with synthetic vitamin A may not be all. In fact, synthetic vitamin A may do more harm than good. Researchers have this to propose: “Beta-carotene in carrots is attached to lipoproteins which appear to aid in preventing toxicity. Isolated synthetic beta-carotene, does not have the attached lipoproteins or other potentially protective substances as found in foods like carrots.” Data in several clinical trials not only presented convincing evidence of the lack of effect of synthetic beta-carotene in well-nourished populations but identified harmful properties of synthetic vitamin A if given as an isolated, synthetic supplement to smokers, or to individuals exposed to environmental carcinogens. In a consumer-directed publication, Stephen Sinatra (M.D.) observes: “Research has shown that high doses of synthetic beta-carotene—the kind found in many popular brands—may actually increase your risk for lung cancer. Because at high levels it can become pro-oxidative—exactly the opposite of what you want.”

The bottom line is: While isolated synthesized vitamin A have posed toxicity issues, this is not considered to be the case for natural vitamin A found in foods.

Natural is better with Vitamin K:

Naturally-derived Vitamin K-2 from fermented soy beans, known as MK-7, is better at raising vitamin K levels than supplements with synthetic K-1 or synthetic K-2, known as MK-4.

Conclusion: We might not always get what we’re expecting from synthetics. The Organic Consumers Association affirms “isolated vitamins cannot be used or recognized by the body in the same way as the natural version.”

How to tell synthetic and natural apart?

One of the best ways to distinguish a synthetic vitamin from one derived from natural sources is to know the chemical differences between them. This is because the term “organic” and “natural” may no longer necessarily mean what we expect of them. For instance:

Therefore, basic chemistry is a useful tool to guard against an inferior product.

Below is a chart that identifies common vitamins and their synthetic names. In other words, if you see these names on the labels, they are synthetically manufactured. B-Vitamins and Vitamin C are usually synthetically produced. Natural beta-carotene is also rare due to high costs in production.


Synthetic Name/s
Vitamin A Retinyl Palmitate, Acetate, Betacarotene (isolated)
Vitamin B1 Thiamine Mononitrate, Thiamine Hydrochloride (HCl)
Vitamin B2 Riboflavin (isolated), USP Vitamin B2
Pantothenic Acid Calcium D-Pantothenate, Pantothenic acid, Panthenol
Vitamin B6 Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (HCl)
Vitamin B12 Cyanocobalamin, Hydroxycobalamin
Vitamin C Ascorbic Acid, Sodium Ascorbate
Vitamin E dl-alpha tocopherol, dl-alpha tocopherol acetate or succinate

Adapted from Robert Thiel, Ph.D., Naturopath

Other tips to tell if your vitamin is synthetic:

Research has not demonstrated any natural vitamin in failing to perform all of its natural functions, the converse of that of synthetic vitamins.

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