Vitamins: Synthetic Vs Natural

Green Lifestyle

Just what's in your multivitamins? We take a closer look.

Synthetic Vs Natural Vitamins

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Take a wander down the health aisle of your local supermarket or pharmacy and have a look at all the supplements on offer. You’ll be amazed at the bamboozling array of products, all touting to benefit your health. If you pick up any of the packages, you’ll be even more surprised to see how very little information there is about what is inside.

So, what are they made of?

And where do the vitamins come from?

We all know that vitamins are essential for life and good health, and that vitamins occur naturally in the whole foods that we eat. It wouldn’t seem a huge leap of logic to think that vitamin supplements are full of all that same natural goodness. But did you know that around 95% of the vitamin supplements on the market are made with synthetic ingredients?

It would be nice to think that vitamin manufacturers are patiently sitting around squeezing oranges and grinding wheat berries to turn into handy little pills for us to pop. But the reality is that most vitamin supplements are concocted in a laboratory. It is cheaper and easier to make them this way, and it ensures a steady supply of uniform ingredients that are usually more stable and have longer shelf lives.

A biochemist will tell you that from a molecular standpoint that synthetic and natural vitamins are structurally the same. But natural vitamins are found in the foods we eat, while most synthetic supplements are made from petroleum derivatives or hydrogenated sugars. When production processes go awry, contaminants such as lead and arsenic have even been detected in vitamins. Perhaps that doesn’t sound like something you want to be ingesting, even if the ingredients are safe for human consumption.

Unfortunately, if you want to avoid these synthetic ingredients, the information given on the bottle is not going to be much help. Labelling requirements for supplements in Australia are pretty loose, and consumers should be wary of any branding and marketing claims.

According to the Therapeutic Goods Administration, there are no specific rules regarding the use of the word ‘natural’ on supplement products, nor is there an obligation for companies to disclose the origin of synthetic vitamins. In addition to synthetic ingredients, these vitamins may contain other ingredients you might not want to ingest either. Additives, such as flavours, sweeteners, binders, fillers and coatings can all be used without revealing the source.

So what to do if you want to avoid synthetics? Cyndi O’Meara, a nutritionist and author from
Changing Habits, offered the following tips on reading supplement labels:

  • Look at the list of ingredients. If you see items beginning in ‘dl’ or ending it ‘-ate’ or ‘ide’, you can be pretty sure the vitamins are synthetic.
  • Be wary of the word ‘natural’, as it is used widely, and not necessarily to mean what you or I would think of as natural. If a vitamin is naturally derived, it is from a food source, so the ingredients list will indicate this by citing the actual food source, such as camu camu or citrus, instead of vitamin C. If only the vitamin itself is listed, you can assume that it is likely synthetic.
  • Look for the potency of the vitamin on the label. If a supplement has a high potency, not found in natural sources (look for multiples of the recommended dietary intake), then it is synthetic.
  • If in doubt about any of the ingredients listed (or likely, not listed) your best bet is to call the manufacturer and ask them.

Next time you are considering a health supplement, take a good hard look at the label. If you are concerned by what you see – or don’t see, as the case may be – why not head over to the fresh produce aisle or your local farmers’ markets, and buy vitamins in the packaging that Mother Nature intended?