Supplements have become a staple in the diets of many Americans as awareness of skyrocketing nutritional deficiencies grows.
In an analysis from 2001–08, it was determined that about 90 percent of Americans are deficient in vitamins D and E, and more than 40 percent have some other form of nutritional deficiency. Depending on the study, 35 percent to 80 percent of Americans now take supplements. The data are more uniform in the higher age brackets, with about 80 percent of adults older than the age of 60 using supplements.
While nutritional supplements can resolve nutrient insufficiencies and provide health benefits, they aren’t meant to replace a wholesome diet. They might even come with unknown side effects and risks.
Supplements: Mostly Synthetics With Potential Risks
When someone buys a bottle of supplements, they may assume that what they’re getting is the extracted, concentrated version of whatever vitamin or mineral they would find in food.
More often than not, the active ingredient in their bottle is synthetic, meaning that it’s been manufactured using industrial chemicals. Two scientists from the University of Nis in Serbia note that there isn’t even much difference between different brands of supplements.
“More than 95 percent of the vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that you can buy at health food stores and close to 100 percent of those sold in other stores are now made by the same few pharmaceutical and chemical companies who supply them to most all the vitamin and mineral companies,” they wrote(pdf).
Some synthetic vitamins are even potentially harmful.
An example of this is synthetic vitamin E, also known as all rac-alpha-tocopherol (incorrectly called d,l-α-tocopherol), which isn’t identical to the naturally occurring vitamin E. While vitamin E from natural food occurs as a single molecule, all rac-alpha-tocopherol is a mixture of eight different molecules and is made through industrial petrochemical processes.
Studies have suggested that consumption of all rac-alpha-tocopherol may be associated with increased prostate cancer risk. A study that subjected about 35,000 men to daily supplements of selenium, all rac-alpha-tocopherol, both selenium and all rac-alpha-tocopherol, or a placebo found that those who took all rac-alpha-tocopherol had an increased 17 percent risk of prostate cancer.
Synthetic beta-carotene also differs from naturally occurring cis-beta-carotene. Supplementation has been documented to have an association with increased mortality in lung cancer patients.
Other synthetic vitamins that are potentially toxic include:
- Vitamin B1 (Thiamine): Thiamine hydrochloride
- Pantothenic acid: Calcium D-pantothenate
- Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine): Pyridoxine hydrochloride
- Vitamin B12: Cyanocobalamin
- Folic acid: Pteroylglutamic acid
Synthetic Versus Natural
While nutrients from whole foods are often packaged with other assisting and inhibiting nutrients, most synthetic vitamin and mineral supplements on the market are isolates; a vitamin C supplement will only contain ascorbic acid, and a magnesium supplement has a magnesium compound such as magnesium oxide as the bioactive ingredient, with fillers and flavorings making up the rest of the pill.
Isolated Vitamins or Minerals May Not Function Well
Vitamins and minerals don’t function alone; most “cannot even function unless trace minerals are available for the synthesis or function of various carrier proteins and enzymes,” molecular nutritionist Eric Potratz wrote to The Epoch Times in an email.
For example, the absorption pathway for magnesium requires boron and vitamin D, so supplementation with these two nutrients is generally recommended, according to Jayney Goddard, president of The Complementary Medicine Association (The CMA) and founder and co-chair of the British Society of Lifestyle Medicine.
Yet other trace minerals, such as calcium, share the same absorption pathway as magnesium, so when a person over-supplements with magnesium, this can block calcium from being absorbed and might even lead to calcium deficiency.
Also, different formulas have different degrees of bioavailability. In the case of magnesium supplements, the common ingredient magnesium oxide has an absorption rate of 4 percent, while compounds such as magnesium citrate and magnesium glycinate would give a higher bioavailability.
Some Synthetic Vitamins May Not Be as Beneficial as Natural Ones
Some studies have argued that synthetic vitamins aren’t as beneficial as natural vitamins or don’t behave the same biologically, since they lack accompanied dietary nutrients such as phytonutrients.
“What most people do not realize is that these [synthetic] vitamins and minerals are not true and complete vitamins and minerals as would be supplied by good organically-grown whole foods,” the Serbian researchers wrote.
For example, when ascorbic acid, a common synthetic vitamin C, is ingested, the liver has to convert it into dehydroascorbic acid. A study also found that synthetic vitamin C is absorbed better when taken with bioflavonoids rather than consumed isolated.
However, the strength of this argument is still under debate, since not all vitamins would act in the same way and thousands of phytonutrients exist in plants, many of which are unnamed with unknown properties.
Most importantly, phytonutrients can act as a double-edged sword. On one hand, they can promote the absorption and function of certain nutrients, but they also act as antinutrients and obstruct the absorption of other minerals and vitamins.
“In the food realm of things, these competitions work so that the body doesn’t actually overdose on certain micronutrients,” said board-certified micronutrient specialist Jayson Calton. Calton is also board-certified in integrative health, alternative medicine, and sports nutrition. His wife, Mira Calton, is a licensed certified nutritionist and micronutrient specialist, also board-certified in integrative health.
Phytonutrients remain largely an enigma, and it’s still unknown exactly what phytonutrients should be paired with what vitamins for optimal absorption.
One way to counter the problems of imbalance when taking isolated vitamins and minerals is to seek out products that have been formulated so that minerals and vitamins that work together are consumed at the same time.
When the Caltons produced their daily supplements from a mix of synthetic and natural nutrients, most of their time was spent on matching synergistic nutrients while separating them from antagonistic ingredients.
“We spent six years doing research,” Mira Calton said.
Theory: Vitamins Work Like Complex Clockwork
Dr. Royal Lee, who has been hailed by some as the greatest nutritionist of the 20th century, theorized that vitamins are made of numerous parts that work together, like a clock.
For example, ascorbic acid isn’t equivalent to vitamin C but is only a component of it. Isolated and purified ascorbic acid, therefore, isn’t biologically sufficient for the body.
However, Lee’s theory hasn’t been proven and is largely unaccepted in conventional medicine, although some research does suggest that whole-food vitamins may provide more benefits than synthetic vitamins.
Lee’s theory may be applied to B-group vitamin complexes.
Since the vitamin B complex is made up of vitamins B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B7, B9 (folate), and B12, these eight vitamins may interact and work together in pathways.
When a person supplements with a single B-group vitamin, the increase in an isolated B vitamin draws on other B-group vitamins for proper functioning. Studies have shown that supplementing with folate is usually related to a low B12 level.
Synthetic Supplements Can Be Helpful
All this isn’t to say that the risks of synthetic supplements outweigh the benefits. Since they’re more purified isolates than what can be obtained through whole food, they can quickly raise vitamin and mineral levels to sufficiency.
Most folate supplements on the market are folic acid. Folic acid is synthetic but has a better bioavailability than whole-food folate.
Jayson Calton noted that L-5-methyltetrahydrofolate acid (L-5-methyl-THF), which is rarely found in nature but can be manufactured from folic acid, may be superior to both folate and folic acid.
L-5-methyl-THF is the activated form of folate; the body can utilize it immediately without any changes or conversions, while folate and folic acids are inactivated and require further transformation before they can be used.
The extra transformation steps can be problematic if the person has an MTHFR mutation, which makes the body less efficient at converting folate and folic acid to the active form.
While the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that people with these mutations increase their folate and folic acid intake to ensure adequacy, some argue that this can be potentially toxic, depending on the genetic mutation. The alternative advice is to take folate in the active form directly, which skips the conversion process and any health risks associated.
On the other hand, vitamin D3, also known as cholecalciferol, which is mostly synthesized in the laboratory from lanolin, can quickly increase vitamin D levels for most people who stay indoors and aren’t exposed to the sun.
Natural Supplements: Often Just Expensive Synthetics
Natural and whole-food vitamins on the market are often marketed and promoted as made from genuine food and are therefore healthier than synthetic supplements.
Yet most aren’t much different.
A vitamin with the label “natural” could very well be made from fully synthetic vitamins because of the lack of regulations by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Whole-food supplements are made through extractions of genuine food. Freeze-drying is a popular manufacturing method for whole-food supplement producers, allowing retention of most of the nutrients without chemical processing, while simultaneously giving the supplements a long shelf life.
Yet even among these products, most are only partially whole foods, the Caltons wrote in their blog, with added synthetics to ensure that the nutritional levels match the labels. Some manufacturers also ferment whole-food supplements with yeast and bacteria. These microorganisms have been engineered to add synthetic vitamins to the mixture.
A major reason these synthetic vitamins and minerals are added to whole-food supplements is that the potency of vitamins and minerals in these supplements can’t be guaranteed, as they may vary every season because of conditions in the soil, harvest, extraction methods, and many more reasons.
Potratz explained in a blog post that in genuine whole-food supplements, such as in his example of palm fruit supplements, the ingredients list specifically states from where each nutrient is extracted or has a comprehensive proprietary blend list that shows all of the whole foods included. However, in synthetic supplements, only one isolated nutrient is listed.
When ingredient lists contain the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae or the bacteria Lactobacillus bulgaricus, this means that synthetic vitamins were also incubated in a fermentation process, Potratz wrote.
Just Go Back to Diet?
Mira Calton said that while supplements are only complementary to a healthy diet, people may struggle to get their full nutrition from wholesome foods. That’s because the practices of industrial agriculture have resulted in nutrient-deficient fruits, vegetables, and grains. Even livestock has been affected.
“When we were writing our five different books [on nutrition], we really searched for any research studies that we could find where these researchers were able to achieve a micronutrient-sufficient level [using diet alone],” Jayson Calton said. “The researchers are very straightforward and say they could not create a diet.”
Studies have shown that nutritional levels of fruits and vegetables have exhibited a median decline of 5 to 40 percent or more in minerals, vitamins, and protein, compared to historical data.
Naturopath Dr. Jana Schmidt said she wouldn’t say it’s impossible to meet optimum nutritional intake through diet, “but I don’t know many people that eat so clean, so rich, that they could get everything they need on a daily basis, from what they’re growing.”
Growing food at home can help increase nutrients.
“If you can pick it fresh and ripe when the enzymes are at their peak, the nutrients are at their peak,” she said.
Emeritus professor Bonnie Kaplan, a nutritional researcher from the University of Calgary, noted that there’s currently no way of verifying what the optimum level people should take for their nutrients is; some do well on inadequate intakes of vitamins, and some may need more.
Sally Fallon Morrell, author of Nourishing Traditions and president of the Weston A. Price Foundation, is hoping that supplementation won’t become a necessity.
Fallon Morrell owns a dairy farm with her husband and doesn’t use any herbicides, pesticides, or synthetic fertilizers on her farm. She encourages those who are capable to seek out organic wholesome food, which is usually grown in more nutritious soil.