We are often asked if there is a nutritional difference between ingesting natural over synthetic vitamins. This is a good but complicated question, one with different answers depending on whom you talk to. From my perspective the answer is yes, there is a difference with some vitamins.
On the other hand, some supplement companies will say that “natural vitamins are better and our vitamins are all natural, so therefore, buy ours.” However, you will pay a premium price for genuine “all natural” multiple vitamins and the amounts of the individual vitamins will usually be substantially lower than a supplement that includes some synthetic vitamins. It is worth noting at least 90% of all vitamins sold in the U.S. are synthetic.
So which vitamins does it clearly make a difference with? In my opinion and experience it is not important with the B vitamins and vitamin C. These are of a fairly simple chemical structures and the manufacturing process seems to do a good job of duplicating them. For the more complex molecules of vitamin A and E it is a different story.
Lets look at beta-carotene first. Beta-carotene is converted into vitamin A by the body and, therefore, provides most of the same benefits of vitamin A without the risks. Most multiple vitamins today use beta-carotene to supply part of the vitamin A component. Beta-carotene has the added advantage of being a much better antioxidant then vitamin A.
Many complex vitamins have a chemical structure that can be found in either a left- or right-handed rotation. For beta-carotene the more common rotation in nature is the “cis-” rotation, with some of the “trans-“ rotated molecules also found. The cis- rotated molecules have more anti-oxidation capacity than the trans-. Unfortunately, synthetic beta-carotene has a lot less cis- than trans- molecules. Plus, other carotenoids like the alpha- and gamma-carotenes are also now known to be of benefit. These are mainly found in natural sources of beta-carotene. So I like to see natural beta-carotene in multiple vitamins. I particularly recommend it in the antioxidant formulas, with the “mixed” carotenoids also present. Finally, look for the source of the beta-carotene to assure that it really is natural. In most cases the bottle will mention the algae “D. salina” as the source.
If a person is trying to fight off an infection I like to use vitamin A instead of beta-carotene. Then I recommend the natural fish oil sources since the synthetic form has greater toxicity. In a multiple vitamin I like to see some of the vitamin A from fish oil and the rest from natural beta-carotene. If it is natural, the source of vitamin A will usually be listed.
Vitamin E is another vitamin that is clearly better in the natural form. It is better absorbed and retained than the synthetic plus it has other variations that are known to be beneficial. Officially vitamin E is “d-alpha tocopherol” but in nature we also find beta, gamma and delta versions of this molecule. These other forms are now known to have their own benefits. Consequently, I recommend the natural form of vitamin E with “mixed tocopherols” in multiple vitamins and especially in the antioxidant formulas. Other forms of natural vitamin E include “d-alpha tocopheryl acetate” and “d-alpha tocopheryl acid succinate.” If the chemical name has “dl-alpha” on the front of it, it’s synthetic.
Finally, it is important to have these vitamins together. Some people get a favorite vitamin and neglect to include the others in their daily supplementation. These vitamins all work together, this is true for the B vitamins as well as the antioxidants and minerals. Therefore, for preventative purposes, I always recommend a broad-spectrum, low-potency daily multiple vitamin making sure that you get a good dose of the antioxidants vitamin C, E, beta-carotene and the mineral selenium either in the multiple or in a separate antioxidant.
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