Keeping things natural is touted as ideal for most things that we ingest, there are (as with everything in life) some exceptions to the rule though.
Vitamins are one of the arenas that an exception to the norm must be made.
Research has shown that the way vitamins are delivered can have an impact(1) on how effectively our bodies are able to absorb the nutrients that are packed into supplements. But what about the way vitamins are produced? There is much debate over whether synthetic or natural vitamins are more effective.
It’s assumed that what is found in nature in fruits, vegetables, and other sources is what is commonly associated with being a “natural” source for vitamins and nutrients.
While the term “natural” may sound like the easy choice for a product, the fact of the matter is that to use the word “natural” in packaging, companies are only required to have 10% of the product made of plant-derived ingredients. The remaining bulk of the product can be made of synthetic ingredients while still using the word “natural”.
What scientists are finding is that just because something has been made in a lab doesn’t mean that it’s less effective than it’s “natural” counterparts. And indeed, all supplements are made in labs, so that 10% of “natural” is still being processed in a laboratory setting.
With so many options available for delivery method, sources of supplements, multi-vitamins, production methods, and so on, it’s a dizzying prospect to get current and accurate information on what is the best way to reach your daily vitamin intake goals.
To narrow down the vast amounts of information that this article could contain, we’ll just focus on Vitamin C, otherwise known as ascorbic acid.
Why Is Vitamin C Such An Important Part Of Your Diet?
Where to even begin? This super powerful antioxidant is a free radical fighter that helps prevent and treat diseases. It’s been touted as an effective treatment for cancer, diabetes, heavy metal toxicity, and many other illnesses.
Recently Vitamin C has also been used in the treatment of COVID-19 patients who are suffering from respiratory symptoms caused by the illness(3).
In addition to its latest role in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, Vitamin C is also vital(4) to bone formation, wound healing, gum health, connective tissue development, immune function, and metabolic functioning.
The promising results that researchers have seen in treating and preventing these serious illnesses have been mostly focused on intravenous administration of Vitamin C (also known as ascorbic acid) at high doses under medical supervision. Doses much higher than can be easily consumed from natural sources like fruit and vegetables.
That being said, intravenous Vitamin C dosing consistently is not something that most people can fit into their schedules. Because Vitamin C is water-soluble, it must be administered daily. While this helps for absorption, it isn’t beneficial for the storage of nutrients. This means that in order to maintain healthy levels in the body, it needs to be ingested daily through food or supplements, and to ingest the levels of vitamin C being administered intravenously in these studies from a natural food source one would need to eat the equivalent of 20 oranges a day! Even then depending on many factors only a percentage of the vitamin would make it to your bloodstream.
What Is A Synthetic Vitamin?
Synthetic vitamins are formulated exclusively in a laboratory setting, while “natural” vitamins are partially derived from plants, animals, and other natural sources and then manufactured in a lab.
The synthetic version of a vitamin or supplement has two optional variations for the compound’s makeup. There are vitamins that are identical to the natural alternative on a molecular level, but there are also variants that have a slightly different molecular framework than their natural counterparts.
So what is the major difference between synthetic and natural Vitamin C? Here is how synthetic stacks up against natural Vitamin C.
Synthetic Vs. Natural Vitamin C
Studies have shown that there are no chemical differences between the synthetic and natural versions of Vitamin C supplements.
So ultimately, there is no significant measurable difference between synthetic and natural Vitamin C supplements. They are molecularly identical. Meaning your body absorbs and processes them in the same way.
Food Vs. Supplements For Vitamin C
You’ll be hardpressed to find a health expert who tells you that food isn’t the best source for vitamins and nutrients. The fact of the matter is that food should be the top source for the vital nutrients that are needed for optimal health. Eating a healthy balanced diet does not only provide you with vitamin C but many other vitamins that are vital to the health of your body.
There have been studies(5) conducted on the bioavailability of Vitamin C in food form versus supplement form and they have found that the bioavailability of synthetic ascorbic acid was equal(6) to the bioavailability of orange juice (the most well-known source of Vitamin C in food). So while you should try to reach your daily intake goals for Vitamin C levels with food, supplements can provide the same levels of the vitamin when taken in raw form. If you are looking to match the larger doses of vitamin C found in the above studies, supplementation to a healthy diet is likely the only practical way of achieving those levels.
With Vitamin C being so important to so many vital functions in the body, and it being available in many food sources, it should be a part of a healthy diet. However, researchers have concluded that “the collection of nationwide data indicate that a considerable number of US residents are vitamin C deficient or depleted.”(7)
There are a few reasons why there could be so many Vitamin C deficient or depleted individuals in the United States.
How foods are cooked can have an effect on the amount of Vitamin C that is retained in the fruit or vegetable through the cooking process. It is found that a significant portion of the vitamin can be lost in this process.
Further, a study published in 2004 in the Journal of American College of Nutrition(8) studied U.S. Department of Agriculture nutritional data from both 1950 and 1999 for 43 different vegetables and fruits, finding “reliable declines” in the amount of protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin (vitamin B2), and vitamin C over the past half-century. Meaning the fruits and veggies we currently buy were found to contain 30% less vitamin C than the ones being sold 50 years ago.
So while obtaining your daily recommended intake of Vitamin C from food, keep all of these factors in mind at the grocery store and in the kitchen.
Smoking And Supplemental Vitamin C
Even if your diet is meeting your Vitamin C daily dosage requirements, there are some additional benefits to taking supplemental ascorbic acid aside from just meeting the daily recommended intake. Studies have shown that smokers need an additional 35 mg/day of Vitamin C (9) when compared to non-smokers.
How To Choose The Right Vitamin C For You
With studies indicating that there are no chemical differences between the synthetic and natural supplement versions of Vitamin C, choosing the right delivery and production methods for your needs should, in theory, be easy.
Food sources of Vitamin C are a great way to get your daily dose of Vitamin C and other nutrients. In an ideal world, this would be easy. Unfortunately, getting to the daily recommended dosage of Vitamin C from only food may prove to be difficult for many. That’s where supplements can help.