Dangers of Synthetic Vitamins and How to Spot Them
There is great debate in the nutrition industry as to whether or not synthetics or isolates are better or worse than whole food vitamins. Most natural health experts agree on one thing: No matter which foods you eat, whole foods are far better for you than refined foods. So why do some people believe the rules of nutrition would suddenly change when it comes to vitamins and other nutritional supplements?
These are pulled or isolated from their natural cofactors and are often synthesized like pharmaceuticals. If sufficient cofactors are not supplied – such as other vitamins, minerals, and enzymes – then the body might not be able to use them. These nutrient isolates or USP vitamins and minerals are sometimes combined with food concentrates and herbs. This might be an improvement, but many believe are still inferior to whole food vitamins. Nature does not produce any nutrient in an isolated form. The nutrients in foods are blended together in a specific way and work best in that format. For an isolated nutrient to work properly in the body, it needs all the other parts that are naturally present in the food too. If the parts are not all there from the start, they are taken from your body’s stored supply. This is why isolated nutrients often work for awhile, then seem to stop working.
Studies also show your body treats these isolated and synthetic nutrients like xenobiotics (foreign substances). This is why your urine will oftentimes turn some shade of glow-in-the-dark yellow when you take certain synthetic vitamins, as your body simply flushes these foreign substances out.
The worse part is that this only applies to water-soluble vitamins that are readily flushed out of the body. Some vitamins, namely A, D, E and K, are fat-soluble, which means they accumulate in adipose (fat) tissue and in the liver. Natural fat-soluble vitamins don’t pose any threat because the body knows how to metabolize them since they are equipped with enzymatic co-factors. This is not the case with synthetic vitamins, however, which suggests that taking high doses of these vitamins could lead to an over accumulation leading to toxicity.
Unless you are absolutely sure all the ingredients are from naturally occurring sources, there is a strong chance they could be synthetically derived. You could be supplementing with components of chlorinated hydrocarbons (PCBs), petroleum by-products and even sewage sludge. Before you pop another, find out what may be lurking in your vitamins. (See Vitamin toxins in part 1 here)
There are simply no substitutes for certain things found in the natural world. B complex vitamins, (B1-B8) for instance, are a family of water-soluble nutrients that contributes to healthy metabolic functioning in humans and because they are water-soluble they must be replenished regularly. Natural dietary sources of B vitamins include spinach, cabbage, nuts, fish, legumes, beans, and brewer’s yeast. In stark contrast, synthetic B vitamins are created in a lab from petroleum by-products, such as coal tar. The majority of vitamin B-12, also known as cyanocobalamin, is synthesized from hormone and pesticide-laden conventional cow’s liver or activated sewage sludge. Yes, you read that correctly.
Similarly, although vitamin C is readily available from sun-drenched citrus fruits, the synthetic C is manufactured in a lab from sulfuric acid. It’s ironic that manufacturers often compete with each other by touting that their vitamin C product is more “potent” when 1) it’s incomplete ascorbic acid and gets passed out of the body through the urine and 2) it very likely came from the same source — Hoffman-LaRoche in Nutley, New Jersey, the company that cooks up 90% of synthetic vitamin C sold as (fractionated) ascorbic acid.
Are Synthetic Vitamins Harmful?
Aside from the fact that synthetic vitamins are virtually useless to your body because they are incomplete, they can cause health problems if taken over a long period of time.
Unfortunately, most studies investigating vitamins use synthetic versions. On the one hand this is good, as synthetic vitamins in general have overwhelmingly been shown to be largely harmless.
5 Steps To Identify The Ingredients On A Vitamin Label:
Look for the words “100 percent natural” on the product’s label. Some product labels may contain the words “natural,” but manufacturers can claim “natural” on their nutritional products if at least 10 percent of the product comes from natural food sources. The Organic Consumers Organization recommends looking for products that contain “100 percent plant-based” or “100 percent animal-based” on the product’s label.
Find the “food source” list on the products label. If the product’s label does not contain a list of natural food sources, then the product is synthetic. Look for food sources such as yeast, fish, vegetable and citrus.
Identify whole foods in the ingredient list instead of the particular nutrient. Dr. Ben Kim, a chiropractor and acupuncturist with his own radio show, says to look for foods on the list of ingredients that contain a certain vitamin, such as “acerola cherry powder,” which contains vitamin C. If you can identify “vitamin C” in the ingredient list, Kim says you can almost guarantee that the vitamin is synthetic.
Look out and avoid salt forms on the product label, a synthetic added to supplements for increasing the stability of the vitamin or mineral. Some of the salt forms to look for include acetate, bitartrate, chloride, gluconate, hydrochloride, nitrate and succinate.
Learn how to read the product’s label by looking for keywords that indicate the supplement is synthetic. Words that end in “ide” or “ate” indicate that the product contains salt forms, which are synthetics.
For instance, if you see chloride, hydrochloride, acetate or nitrate on the list of ingredients, the manufacturer used synthetics for the product.
Additionally, the letters “dl” that appear before the name of an ingredient indicates the supplement is synthetic. As an example, look for “fish oils” when buying a vitamin A supplement. If the product’s label states “palmitate,” it is a synthetic vitamin A supplement.
Common Synthetic Vitamins to Avoid
• Vitamin A: Acetate and Palmitate
• Vitamin B1 (Thiamine): Thiamine Mononitrate, Thiamine Hydrochloride
• Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin): Riboflavin
• Vitamin B3 (niacin)
• Vitamin B5 (calcium pantothenate)
• Pantothenic Acid: Calcium D-Pantothenate
• Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine): Pyridoxine Hydrochloride
• Vitamin B12: Cobalamin
• PABA (Para-aminobenzoic Acid): Aminobenzoic Acid
• Folic Acid: Pteroylglutamic Acid
• Choline: Choline Chloride, Choline Bitartrate
• Biotin: d-Biotin
• Vitamin C (Ascorbic Acid): Ascorbic Acid
• Vitamin D: Irradiated Ergosteral, Calciferol
• Vitamin E: dl-alpha tocopherol, dl-alpha tocopherol acetate or succinate
• Dicalcium phosphate
Instead of these petro chemicals in parentheses, if it says, “derived from rice bran,” or “derived from yeast,” it’s from a natural source.
NOTE: The “dl” form of any vitamin is synthetic. If you are not sure ask the pharmacist where you are buying it if there are synthetics in the product you are buying.
In conclusion, Michael Long, ND sums this whole issue up rather nicely:
“Even with totally irresponsible use, you would be hard pressed to be killed by your vitamins… In truth, studies are published every day showing the safety and health promoting effects of vitamins, especially when used responsibly (i.e. used for a specific purpose, after objective testing showed a deficiency), and according to the evidence.
If you want to focus on something that will actually kill you, open your medicine cabinet and look at the drugs that stare back at you. Close to 1 million people die in North America every year as a direct result of adverse effects from prescription drugs. The safety record of pharmaceutical drugs is not even comparable to vitamins.”