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Synthetic Vitamins 101

Synthetic Vitamins 101

The Great Debate: 3 main considerations concerning organic versus synthetic sources of vitamin and mineral ingredients in supplements

A major question when it comes to supplements is the following: Are organic supplement ingredients better than synthetic supplement ingredients. The answer - a diplomatic “it depends”. Here’s some helpful guidance in the matter.

There is a sort of knee-jerk reaction in the parts of the wellness community when it comes to the word “organic”, and rightly so based on what the word means specifically in our food supply. Organic farming practices are a blessing when it comes to shopping for whole foods and minimally processed products in the market. It is a guiding light when it navigating the dismal state of our national food supply, and if you have the option and the means, it’s definitely the way to go - I would argue with the following caveat - “when it comes to food sources”.

As the word “organic” relates to supplements, I would like to present the idea that the best mantra is “go with organic when possible and practical” - the same parameters that govern “organic” agriculture practices in food don’t always correlate well with quality supplement creation, and here’s the reasons why:

Reason #1 - Practicality of Serving Size of Organic Multivitamin Ingredients

A primary objective of supplementation is to deliver meaningful, therapeutic dosages of included ingredients and dosages of reasonable size and proportions.  An inherent barrier to organic ingredients in supplements is that whole foods are actually less nutrient dense as you may think - meaning it takes a relatively large volume of a food to deliver a therapeutic dosage of many key nutrients. For example - let’s talk about vitamin C: In its most natural form, acerola cherries are one of the most potent sources of vitamin C at about 1-4.5% concentration of vitamin C depending on the source. There are ways to concentrate this potency, but only up to about 30% and still be considered organic before it gets too processed or synthetic. That said, a daily minimum dosage of vitamin required is approximately 100mg, but doses of supplemental vitamin C may be much higher in the research. You would need 333mg of the 30% potency acerola cherry to meet even the minimum daily requirement of Vitamin C in a supplement.

Compare this to magnesium from an organic whole food source. The most concentrated available form is found in an extract of lantana at about 4% potency. A standard dosage of magnesium in a supplement may range between 50-200mg, so to achieve a modest dosage of 100mg of actual magnesium, you would need 25 grams of the lantana extract. Consider that a typical capsule is .750 grams, you would have to swallow 33 capsules of this extract to reach a therapeutic dose of this single ingredient.

Are you beginning to see the limitations of how organic applies to supplement creation?

(Possibly its own fact) Interestingly, even with USDA organic certification, there are non-organic and synthetic items that are allowed in products and still be considered organic, but many of these ingredients come at the cost of quality and bioavailability. For example, the only source of magnesium you can use, which is an allowed synthetic form, is magnesium oxide, but this ingredient is limited in terms of its bioavailable (ability of the body to absorb and utilize the ingredient).

To illustrate this truth, magnesium oxide has only about a 4% absorbability (bioavailability). (PMID: 11794633) Translation: Even though a label says that there 100mg of magnesium in the form of magnesium oxide, and indeed you may be swallowing 100mg of magnesium in the form of magnesium oxide… you body is only able to absorb and potentially utilize a mere 4% or 4mg of that magnesium. Dosage and absorbability are everything in a quality supplement to actually have a therapeutic effect.

So if it’s not obvious to design a quality, bioavailable multivitamin from organic, whole food ingredients including allowed synthetic ingredients, is virtually impossible without either potentially hundreds of capsules or sacrificing bioavailability for the allowed synthetic ingredients.

Reason #2 - Cost Prohibitive

Considering the amount of organic, whole food ingredients that it would require to make an organic multivitamin, can you directly see how it can be incredibly cost prohibitive? This is only point number two, but this is such a huge practicality factor that doesn’t need much more explanation than this.

Reason #3 - Bioavailability and active forms of ingredients

We’ve touched on the topic of bioavailability, but another angle to consider in organic versus synthetic forms of supplement ingredients is the fact that some (not all) synthetic forms of vitamins are actually more readily absorbable and bioavailable than food-based forms. To further elaborate on this topic, let’s discuss the concept of “activated” or “active” forms of ingredients and use some of the B vitamins as the example in this illustration.

Active forms of ingredients describe the biologically active form of a vitamin that actually carries out the activity in our body.

Folate Example: When it comes to vitamin B9, or folate, for instance, we consume it as folate in spinach, meats, and brussel sprouts, but the body must convert it into its active form to actually use it. A significant number of the population are unable to properly digest and absorb folate due to a genetic variation known as a SNP (single nucleotide polymorphism), which makes this process sometimes completely ineffective depending on the severity of the mutation. In fact, it is estimated that between 20-40% of the general population of white and Hispanic individuals carry this gene mutation. (AHA Journal Article)

As such, they actually may require synthetic versions of the folate in the form of the biologically active 5-MTHF (5-methyltetrahydrofolate). This ingredient is crucial for DNA repairs and critical during development in pregnancy among many other reasons.

This illustrates that though not in its organic, whole food form, synthetic versions of the vitamin (which is actually the same chemical structure as the active vitamin used in our bodies) can make a huge functional difference.

In Conclusion

Finally, I would wrap up this discussion saying that in a perfect world, people should get their vitamins and minerals from a variety of organic whole food sources, and if not organic, then conventionally farmed. There are many barriers to consider with this picture for the vast majority of Americans including cost prohibitions, food availability, and the reality of food deserts. A quality daily supplement that is “organic when possible and practical” might be the perfect answer to this reality

Think of ingredient sources as “packaged forms of the vitamins”, whether synthetic or organic. Some packages are wrapped in packages such as a gift bag with two pieces of tissue paper crunched on top, while other forms maybe packaged like seven individually wrapped and stacked layers of Russian Matryoshka dolls with the vitamin hiding in the innermost doll. Supplement creation becomes about the balance of bioavailability, convenience, and quality.

Finally, hopefully this leave the reader with a deeper understanding of organic and synthetic pro and cons and can see that “using organic ingredients when possible and practical” is a great way to live in the gray area. Synthetic doesn’t necessarily mean “processed”, and in fact, there are many compounds consider synthetic that more accurately mirror the active compounds of some vitamins and minerals in our bodies. The key is to find a trustworthy source and a company who cares about quality and evidenced based usage and information sharing over mere convention. Organic certification is powerful when applied to appropriate products, but may not fit the best purposes when it comes to effective and practical supplement creation. It just depends!

About the Author

Dr. Kenny Mittelstadt, DACM, DC, L.Ac., Dipl.OM.

Kenny Mittelstadt is a functional health practitioner and acupuncturist based in San Antonio, Texas. He is trained through the Institute for Functional Medicine and received both of his doctorate degrees with highest honors from Southern California University of Health Sciences. He focuses on empowering patients through wellness education and root-cause healing – transforming health through personalized, lab-based functional medicine programs!


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