Background Info on Synthetic vs. Natural Vitamins (Q&A)

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From the Organic Consumers Association (OCA)
Last Updated: 2/28/2007

Note to reader: This page will be updated regularly with new questions and answers. If you have questions, contact us here.

Are all synthetic vitamins and minerals bad?
There are many negative health and environmental impacts from synthetic ingredients in vitamins and supplements. Put simply, the human body has evolved for millions of years to digest foods found in nature. Most synthetically produced vitamins and supplements are chemical compounds that cannot be found in nature, hence the human body does not recognize these ingredients which can result in unanticipated reactions. The body knows the difference between real and fake and it always prefers real.

OCA’s Nutri-Con campaign aims to offer exposure to these issues to help consumers better choose products that are healthier and easier for the body to absorb and metabolize. The OCA does not claim that synthetic vitamins are all totally useless. Like other pharmaceutical drugs, some of these synthetics have their place in emergency health situations. But many of these synthetics are also unhealthy and naturally occurring vitamins and minerals found in organic foods and 100% plant or food-based supplements are much better. Labeling synthetic supplements as “natural” or “all natural” is consumer fraud. Consumers have a right to know if the vitamin or supplement they are purchasing is synthetic or truly made of naturally occurring ingredients.

How can I read product labels to be able to determine if a particular vitamin or supplement is truly natural or synthetic?
There’s a great ingredient chart you can reference here: The OCA will be adding a more in depth ingredient chart to our website in the coming weeks.

If a vitamin/supplement product label uses words like "Food State", "Food Source", "Food Base", “All natural” , or “Organic”, can I assume that it truly is what it claims to be? There are quite a few companies that use this kind of labeling, but many of them are not being clear on their labels and other literature that they use a medium of fermented or mixture of foods that have been spiked with synthetic vitamins. Many products contain synthetic vitamins which are put into our supplements even though the label says "all natural." One easy way to tell is to look at the RDA. If the potency is higher than anything you would find in nature (example 1000% Daily Recommended Allowance of Vitamin C per serving), the product contains synthetically produced ingredients, no matter what the producer of that product might claim.

How do I know what companies I can trust?
Over the next few months, the OCA will be building a list of vitamin/supplement producers that ranks them based on criteria that assesses how close that product is to being 100% organic and naturally occurring. If you have a specific brand of vitamin/supplement that your are curious, you can submit that company to us here, and we will investigate its ingredients.

There is also a new standard under development known as the Naturally Occurring Standard (NOS). Products that meet this standard are naturally occurring, organic, fairly traded, and free of genetically engineered ingredients, synthetics, and nanoparticles. The OCA is working with the Naturally Occurring Standards Group (NOSG) on research and development of this new standard.

Are certain synthetic ingredients worse than others?
Yes. Some vitamins are water soluble, so the flush out of the body quite easily. Other vitamins are fat soluble. The fat-soluble vitamins include vitamins A, D, E and K. Because they are soluble in fat (lipids), these vitamins tend to build-up in the body's fat tissues, fat deposits, and liver. This storage capability makes the fat-soluble vitamins potentially toxic when consuming high-dose synthetic versions of these vitamins, rather than food-based vitamins that the body knows how to metabolize. Care should be exercised when taking the fat-soluble vitamins, and it is recommended that you avoid the synthetic forms of these vitamins whenever possible.

Also many people are allergic to the chemicals used as a base for synthetic vitamins. Some are toxic, including nicotine, coal tars and alloxal. Avoid toxic ingredients such as magnesium stearate or stearic acid (toxic flowing agents), silicon dioxide (common sand used as an expensive filler that makes the bottle weigh more with the hope that the uneducated consumer will equate weight with higher quality), natural flavors (a common term for toxic MSG used to disguise bland tastes), methylcellulose, carnauba wax, titanium dioxide, and many more. If you are not sure of what you are taking, do not take it! These toxic chemical agents can create significant health problems when consumed over time. The OCA will be posting a detailed list of some of the most problematic ingredients.

What is wrong with isolated vitamins?
In addition to being synthetic, isolated vitamins are missing all their naturally occurring essential synergistic co-factors and transporters. A synthetic vitamin can stimulate a cell's metabolism, but it cannot upgrade or replace the cell's components with superior, better quality elements. The results? A degraded cell. Nature always packages vitamins in groups. The vitamins work together for better absorption. For this reason, the body responds to an isolated vitamin in the same way it responds to a toxin.

Why is it a warning sign if a product is labeled “Manufactured by…” or “Manufactured for…”?
When a company turns over the manufacturing process to someone else, they lose control of how the product is made. Toxic agents may be added to the product or sneaky substitutions can be made in order to save money.

How can I tell if my B vitamin is good?
A good example of "junk" nutritional supplements is B vitamins. Most people do not know that most B vitamins are made from petrochemicals! For your best health, take a whole-nutrient B vitamin and avoid synthetics. Synthetics will be listed on the label as follows: Vitamin B1 (thiamine), Vitamin B2 (riboflavin), Vitamin B3 (niacin), Vitamin B5 (calcium pantothenate).