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Synthetic vs. Natural Vitamins: Which is Better?
Written by: Seeking Health
Do you pay attention to the forms of nutrients in your supplements?
There is very little education for consumers in the dietary supplement industry when it comes to synthetic versus natural vitamins.
Synthetic vitamin supplements are common, probably more than you think. If you are someone who prefers a “whole food” vitamin, this blog is for you. We will discuss things that your healthcare professional may not even know!
There are specific reasons why some Seeking Health supplements are not whole food sourced. Synthetic vitamins are strategic and offer you higher quality, more targeted support than you can get from food. If you’re seeking therapeutic properties from your dietary supplements, you should be looking for supplements that are:
- In an optimal delivery method/form
What is Bioavailability?
Nutrients from your supplements and foods are only as good as your ability to absorb and utilize them. Bioavailability defines an ingredient's ability to be used by the body. In pharmacology, it is a measure of how much of a substance (medication or nutrient) is able to reach your bloodstream. Once in circulation, it is ultimately a measure of biological activity at the intended target area(s). Meaning, how much of the substance is made available for your cells/tissues to use or store?
For example, if you are taking supplements to support liver health, how much is making it to your liver cells? A major factor that determines bioavailability is absorption (the amount able to enter your body). Since supplements are taken orally, absorption is largely related to your gastrointestinal ability to digest and absorb nutrients, which are then transported into the bloodstream via receptors in your gut lining.
An ingredient with low bioavailability may not be absorbed well. Or it may need to be converted into another form before being usable by the body. A highly bioavailable ingredient is readily absorbed and already in a form that is usable by the body. As a result, fewer biochemical resources (such as enzymes, energy, and cofactors) are needed to absorb and utilize a bioavailable nutrient.
SNPs and Bioavailability
If you’re a health nut like the rest of us here at Seeking Health, then you are likely particular about what you put into your body (as you should be!). You know that whole, organic, well-rounded meals tend to be more nourishing and less toxic than chemically processed foods and pre-packaged foods. But making healthy choices is not always this black and white.
When it comes to dietary supplements, “natural” takes on a whole new meaning.
In recent years, epigenetic and biochemical research has focused on the bioavailability of nutrients. Via genetics, we know that humans have many single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) or genetic variations. These “genetic mutations” can prevent us from obtaining the most usable form of a nutrient. Even without genetic variations, certain nutrient-converting genes are prone to the effects of stress, which can also prevent us from obtaining proper amounts of a nutrient. No matter your genetic makeup, your environment may not support your ability to obtain essential nutrients for health and wellness from diet alone.
For example, if you follow Dr. Ben Lynch, the founder of Seeking Health, you probably know that he wrote a book on this topic. He highlights the MTHFR gene mutation, which is very common and can slow your ability to produce the “active” form of folate, 5-MTHF. By consuming a supplement with this bioavailable form, you can bypass that genetic mutation and obtain proper amounts of folate for mental health, fertility, growth, development, and so much more. In this way, the bioavailability of nutrients can be more important than obtaining a “naturally derived” nutrient.†
Of course, your daily meals are your first resource for getting nutrition of all types, including fiber, protein, carbs, fats, and many micronutrients. You cannot replace your diet by taking supplements or medications. But if you are looking to target a specific biochemical pathway or replenish your diet with lost nutrients, dietary supplements are an excellent resource.
When you are on the hunt for a high-quality supplement, one of the first things you should look at is whether it is bioavailable and whether it mimics what is naturally found in your body.
Here at Seeking Health, dietary supplements are naturally sourced when it’s the best option and synthetically derived when it’s the best option. This is entirely nutrient-dependent. It’s not as simple as synthetic versus natural, as there are many other options.
Therapeutic herbs, fruits, and vegetable extracts will always come from a whole food source.
The supplement facts label on your bottle should state the plant’s name. A high-quality company will standardize the active compound in the herb as well.
For example, Ashwagandha Extract here at Seeking Health is standardized to contain a minimum of 4.5% withanolides. Withanolides are the compound in ashwagandha thought to contribute to the adrenal and mood benefits of the herb.†
There is no way to “chemically synthesize” a plant herb in the dietary supplement industry. Medicinal plant extracts have many components that synergistically work together to provide healing properties. Chinese medicine or Ayurvedic medicine are common practices that use whole plant extracts and compounds.
Probiotics and Fermentation
Probiotics are sourced from bacterial fermentation processes.
Bacterial fermentation processes usually involve a medium, such as starch, which is fermented using various bacteria to yield beneficial bacteria strains. Here at Seeking Health, the fermentation media are hypoallergenic and vegan.
You cannot synthetically produce bacteria because they are living, single-cell organisms that reside in our bodies. Probiotics need to be maintained in controlled environments. The pH, moisture, light, and temperature levels all need to be kept within tight parameters. This ensures the bacteria are viable for packaging and transport. The cleanest and most efficient way to do this is to control these variables in a laboratory setting. When it comes to probiotics, choose a company producing a pure, clean strain of bacteria for human consumption and benefit. Seeking Health has a variety of probiotics, ranging from Bifidobacterium-only strains to those intended for histamine intolerant individuals.†
Other Nutrients Derived From Bacterial Fermentation
Antioxidants, amino acids, and many other nutrients are often produced via microbial fermentation as well.
Bacteria are organisms with many biochemical and cellular processes. In fact, they are capable of producing vitamins and antioxidants on their own! These nutrients can then be isolated and used in the production of dietary supplements.
For example, coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), a powerful cellular compound that acts as an antioxidant to support heart health and healthy aging, is produced via bacterial fermentation.† Note that sometimes bacteria fermentation reactions also involve chemical reactions to complete the production process of certain nutrients, such as B vitamins. These may be referred to as synthetically produced or derived from bacterial fermentation.
Nutrients Derived From Animal Sources
Here at Seeking Health, Vitamin D3, the active form of vitamin D, is obtained from sheep’s wool.
Lanolin, a substance found in sheep’s wool, contains “converted” vitamin D in its active form. The animal’s wool makes the conversion from sunlight into an active form of vitamin D, just like our human skin does! Obtaining nutrients from animals, such as meat and dairy, gives us active forms of nutrients for optimal utilization by the body.
Omega-3 fatty acids are another nutrient often animal-sourced and found in fish oils. It’s essential to ensure that the fish oil you are getting is clean, free from heavy metals, and not oxidized. DHA is one omega-3 fatty acid that is difficult to obtain in high amounts from plant-based sources. This is why you will often see DHA from fish oil sources. Seeking Health’s Omega-3 Supplements are not synthetic and are sourced from high-quality seafood sources.
Partially Synthetic Nutrients
Minerals are a great example of something that is “partially synthetic.” Minerals are only considered "synthetic" due to the bonding of the mineral to another substance for absorption purposes.
Sometimes mineral supplements will contain magnesium in forms such as magnesium glycinate chelate. While this form may be called “synthetic,” this term can be misleading. You cannot produce a mineral; it is an element, a pure substance consisting of only atoms.
Minerals in dietary supplements are usually sourced from rock or another natural mineral source. They are then synthetically combined with amino acids for dietary supplement use, a process called chelation. Chelation allows the pure natural properties of the minerals to be well recognized and absorbed by the body.
In nature, minerals are obtained from foods and never in a pure form. When pure magnesium enters the body, it is excreted or not absorbed well. For this reason, we chelate magnesium onto amino acids. For example, magnesium glycinate chelate, a common form of magnesium found in dietary supplements, is magnesium attached to the amino acid glycine for optimal absorption. So, while minerals are generally called synthetic, it is only due to the bonding of the mineral to another substance for absorption purposes.
Vitamins are generally derived synthetically.
Vitamin A (retinyl palmitate), B vitamins, and sometimes vitamins E and K are often in synthetic forms when produced for dietary supplements. Other amino acids and vitamin-like compounds are synthesized as well, such as trimethylglycine (TMG) and acetyl-L-carnitine.
When something is derived synthetically, the process generally involves starting materials that undergo chemical reactions in a laboratory environment to produce the end material.
4 Benefits of Synthetic Nutrients
There are actual health benefits of consuming synthetic nutrients over natural nutrients.
Here are the top four health benefits associated with synthetic nutrients (compared to naturally sourced nutrients).
Bioavailable refers to a form of a nutrient that is “readily available” for use by your body. A bioavailable form does not need to be converted into another form before being used by your body. To obtain this “active” form, supplement manufacturers put nutrients through a series of chemical reactions or bacterial fermentation. Plants and natural sources do not contain high amounts of these natural forms.
For example, you may have heard of the active, bioavailable form of folate known as L-5-methyltetrahydrofolate (5-MTHF). Your body uses 5-MTHF for something called methylation, an important biological process for DNA expression, and much more. Natural folates in foods are generally a few enzymatic steps behind this active form. Thus, food folates must first be converted into the active form of 5-MTHF before your body can use them.
The purpose of a supplement is to efficiently provide your body with high doses of a nutrient in a small volume (like a single capsule). Plant extracts and herbs do not contain high concentrations of nutrients. Meaning they do not contain nutrients in amounts that are generally desired in a supplement.
Synthetic production is a more efficient way to obtain high amounts of a single nutrient.
For example, vitamin C is known as ascorbic acid. The vitamin C found in oranges, lemons, and other foods is also in the form of ascorbic acid, combined with bioflavonoids, other nutrients, sugars, and plant compounds. Ascorbic acid can be produced partially synthetically (natural and synthetic compounds). If you were to obtain ascorbic acid only from citrus fruits, it would be incredibly difficult to pack enough fruit in a dietary supplement to deliver adequate amounts. The amount of ascorbic acid in plants is not nearly enough for the volume of fruit when trying to fit it into a limited size capsule or tablet.
It is more efficient to produce vitamins in a controlled laboratory environment than obtaining them from literally tons of fruits and vegetables. Additionally, vitamins are difficult to extract from natural sources such as fruits and vegetables.
The starting materials (the beginning ingredients) do not remain in the final product. On a biochemical level, the starting materials react together and transform into a completely different end material. Once the final ingredient is obtained, it is then purified.
At Seeking Health, we ensure that our raw material suppliers, ingredients, manufacturers, and all of our products are strictly tested for purity before release. We only work with manufacturing facilities that are GMP certified, meaning there are required processes in place to test the purity of raw materials.
Synthetic vs. Man-made
When consumers hear “synthetic,” they might think of chemical-ridden vitamins that contain impurities and toxins. This is not the case with Seeking Health supplements, and we want to clear the air about what “synthetic” means versus something we call “man-made.”
Though the word “synthetic” is scary at first, we hope to bust that myth!
Synthesizing a nutrient is a clean, pure, and controlled way to produce high amounts of a single nutrient. However, you always want to choose supplement companies that have synthetic nutrients that match their natural counterpart.
You want to find synthetic nutrients made to replicate the exact same molecular structure as what would naturally be produced by your body.
Synthetic nutrients that mimic the same forms of nutrients found naturally in your body are healthy.
Be careful when choosing synthetic supplements. Not all synthetic supplements are created equal!
The goal of synthesizing nutrients is to obtain a cost-efficient, high-quality nutrient in a form that is well absorbed and utilized by your body. Ideally, synthetic vitamins should mimic their natural counterparts. However, there are situations where the end-product does not have the same molecular structure as the natural version. This is what we refer to as “man-made.”
Folic Acid vs. Natural Folate
As an example of synthetic versus natural forms, let’s consider folic acid vs. folate. Folate can be synthesized. A cheap, less superior, and synthetic form of folate is known as folic acid. Folic acid is used to fortify bread, cereals, and other packaged foods where the folate has been stripped out during processing. Folic acid is inexpensive to produce and is synthetic. However, it is an inferior synthetic form. Why? Because folic acid has a different molecular structure than natural folate. Meaning it does not match its natural counterpart. Because of its unnatural chemical structure, folic acid can actually block the absorption of natural folate!†
In contrast, natural forms of folate can be produced via synthetic processes as well. The difference is that they are chemically identical to the natural form found in the body and in foods. In fact, to get high concentrations of folate in these superior forms, it must be synthesized. This is the case for many nutrients. In contrast, folic acid is not a natural form and is something to avoid. We call this unnatural form of synthetic vitamins “man-made” because the molecular structure is not natural; it is made up.†
Seeking Health offers active, bioavailable folate as L-5-MTHF in a lozenge form or vegetarian capsule, at 1,700 mg DFE (1000 mcg) folate. Because it is synthesized, L-5-MTHF is the most superior form of folate, also known as L-5-methyltetrahydrofolate.†
Synthetic Forms of Vitamin E
In the supplement world, vitamin E has two similar synthetic forms: dl-alpha-tocopherol and d-alpha-tocopherol. The dl-alpha-tocopherol form is man-made and not superior. Research has shown that this form of vitamin E does not bind or transport as easily as natural vitamin E. (1, 2)
The other form, d-alpha-tocopherol, mimics its natural counterpart and is superior. As you can see, this is not a matter of “natural versus synthetic.” Both forms can be synthesized in a laboratory. Rather, it’s related to the fact that the “d” form mimics the natural form in the body, and the “dl” form does not.
Seeking Health has d-alpha-tocopherol in many of our multivitamins, including our best-selling Optimal Multivitamin Chewable.
Hopefully, you now understand that there are benefits to synthetic nutrients. However, be mindful to avoid synthetic nutrients that have less superior, unnatural forms. This can be tricky and confusing for most consumers. And it begs another question...which is better...synthetic or natural vitamins?
Synthetic vs. Natural Vitamins
You’ve likely seen supplements on the market that advertise themselves as natural or organic multivitamins. But ultimately, when it comes to bioavailability, the best form will differ depending on the nutrient.
When it comes to bioavailability, the best form will vary depending on the nutrient.
Some nutrients are better off naturally sourced or synthesized via fermentation, and some are best in their synthetic forms. There are many variables involved in sourcing nutrients, and there doesn’t seem to be a clearly accepted answer. However, when it comes to certain nutrients, such as vitamins, amino acids, and certain derivatives, synthetic may be better, and here is why.
As we spoke about earlier, bioavailability is important for the absorption and utilization of a nutrient. Supplements from natural sources can be less superior because they are less bioavailable. Sometimes the nutrients are not present in the form that is useable by the body until its converted.
For example, the form of vitamin A that is useable by the body is retinyl palmitate. Your body can take beta carotene and convert it into retinyl palmitate through an enzyme called BC01.
Many people have dysfunctional BC01 enzymes due to genetic variations in the BC01 gene. This can lead to vitamin A deficiency, even if you are consuming beta carotene.
You can get retinyl palmitate from meat because animals do the conversion on their own. However, getting adequate amounts is a concern, so many people choose to supplement.
By synthesizing retinyl palmitate through various chemical reactions, the end result is a pure raw material that can be packaged in high amounts in a small capsule. For those who are vitamin A deficient, this can be much more efficient than trying to obtain enough from the diet.
When you see a dietary supplement with ‘vitamin A naturally sourced as beta carotene,’ remember that you may not be able to convert that beta carotene into usable vitamin A!
Many companies advertise their vitamins as organic, naturally sourced. But if you look at their labels, you’ll often see lower amounts of the nutrient than desirable.
Some of these ‘naturally-sourced vitamins’ are actually yeast or fermentation byproducts. Meaning the nutrient is not directly pulled from a plant. Instead, it is produced via yeast fermentation, much like the bacterial fermentation explained earlier. This could be a bit of false advertising, depending on what you are looking for and how they write it on the supplement facts label.
It’s important to understand the difficulty in creating dietary supplements that are directly sourced from natural plants. Natural-sourced vitamins may not be the best aspect to focus on. Instead, you want to look for specific qualities in your dietary supplements and companies.
5 Factors That Make for a Superior Dietary Supplement
When you’re shopping for dietary supplements, be sure to use the following criteria when making your selections!
- Bioavailable Forms: Not all nutrients have different forms. But for ones that do, obtaining the best, most bioavailable form enhances your body’s ability to use the nutrient.
- Mimics Natural Counterpart: Whether it’s naturally derived or not, you want the nutrients you consume to mimic what your body would produce. That way, you are keeping things in line with your natural biochemistry and not disrupting other biochemical reactions with something “man-made.”
- GMP-Certified Facilities: This means that the company and its manufacturing facilities follow a strict set of quality standards for the products. For example, they must test for the purity of their ingredients upon receiving them.
- Potency: Is the nutrient in the amount that your body requires for optimal health.
- Scientific-backing: Are the formulas based upon actual scientific research? Here at Seeking Health, Dr. Ben Lynch formulates our supplements based upon biochemical pathways and research rooted in genetics and epigenetics. It’s important to have this level of assurance in an industry where nearly anything can be put into a bottle and sold!
When it comes to “natural” health, you may be surprised that consuming something synthetic can be more beneficial than a natural, plant-based product. While natural food-based supplements may seem great, it’s actually a big misconception... and even false advertising!
Remember that supplements are not intended to replace your diet. Dietary supplements are supposed to supplement your diet. They are intended to provide you nutrients that you may not (or can not) get from your meals.
Supplement Ingredient Sourcing
Your supplement manufacturer should be able to tell you how the nutrients are derived in their various products. Often, this information is not listed on the product sales page or supplement label. If they cannot or will not disclose this information to you, consider finding a different supplement company. Here at Seeking Health, we offer a public FAQ database where you can find all of our ingredient sources.
The Bottom Line
Not all nutrients in dietary supplements are natural, nor are they all synthetic. Choosing the best source of a nutrient depends on the nutrient itself. Some, such as vitamins, are better off synthetic, as long as they mimic the form found in nature (its natural counterpart). Others, such as antioxidants, are best produced via bacterial fermentation. While many, such as herbs, are best with the whole plant part in the formula.
This blog intends to educate you, as a consumer, not to be quick to judge synthetic nutrients. Many times, you will want a synthetic nutrient. For example, if you have the common MTHFR gene variation, you might need folate in its active, bioavailable form of 5-MTHF, to circumvent genetic nutrient deficiencies.
Here's the main takeaway...
You want nutrients that are bioavailable (well absorbed and utilized) and that mimic the natural form found and used by your body.
Nutrients are the essential keys to a healthy life and are intended to be obtained from food. Vegan, vegetarian, and other restrictive diets may prevent someone from getting the right amount of nutrition from their food, and therefore supplements can greatly benefit these types of consumers. But in general, a healthy, well-rounded diet will provide you excellent sources of nutrients so that dietary supplements can target specific biochemical pathways in your body for optimal healing and balance in your life.
‡ This information is for educational purposes only. No product results are implied.