Where do vitamin supplements come from?
When people think of drugs, most think “artificial.” When people think of vitamin supplements, most think “natural.”
But both drugs and vitamin supplements can be artificial or natural. Many vitamin supplements produced today are artificial. Meanwhile, the world of “natural” isn’t all hopscotch tournaments and fairy dances. Poison hemlock, hallucinogenic mushrooms, rhubarb leaves and sprouted kidney beans are all natural – and potentially deadly.
There are six categories of nutrients used in the manufacturing of vitamin supplements.
1. Natural source
These include nutrients from vegetable, animal or mineral sources. But before making it into the supplement bottle, they undergo significant processing and refining. Examples include vitamin D from fish liver oils, vitamin E from vegetable oils, and natural beta-carotene.
When a vitamin is marked “natural”, it only has to include 10% of actual natural plant-derived ingredients. The other 90% could be synthetic.
2. Nature-identical synthetic
This includes nutrients completely manufactured in a lab with the molecular structure identical to the same nutrients occurring in nature. Manufacturers often prefer this process because of the cost and scarcity of natural resources. Most standard vitamin supplements on the market today are this type.
An example here would be vitamin C. Most vitamin C currently manufactured is synthetic, coming from China. Vitamin C is a weak acid. Many supplements use salt forms (sodium ascorbate, calcium ascorbate, magnesium ascorbate) to decrease acidity.
The most popular form of synthetic vitamin C is ascorbic acid. Naturally occurring vitamin C is the same molecule as synthetic ascorbic acid. But in food, ascorbic acid is found within the vitamin C complex among other compounds. The ascorbic acid in supplements is often derived from corn starch, corn sugar, or rice starch, and is chemically dependent upon volatile acids.
The method for vitamin C synthesis using two-step fermentation was developed by China in the 1960s:
Ascorbic acid production. From: Vandamme EJ. Production of vitamins, coenzymes and related biochemicals by biotechnological processes. J Chem Tech Biotechnol 1992;53:313-327.
3. Strictly synthetic
Centrum is strictly synthetic
These nutrients are manufactured in a lab and are different than the same nutrients found in nature. Synthetic vitamins can have the same chemical constituents, but still have a different shape (optical activity).
This is important because some of the enzymes in the human body only work properly with a vitamin of the correct shape.When we give the body concentrated forms of synthetic nutrients, it doesn’t always appear to have an appropriate delivery system.
Starting materials for strictly synthetic supplements can be anything from coal tar to petroleum to acetylene gas. These supplements are made in facilities via chemical manipulations with the goal of duplicating the structure of the isolated vitamin. Specific formulas for the process aren’t made available to the public (sorry, I tried).
An example is vitamin B1. Coal tar is a widely used foundational substance for this vitamin — typically a crystalline yellow coal tar (yes, this means it’s from coal, a fossil fuel). Hydrochloric acid is often added to allow precipitation. Then fermentation, heating, cooling, and other steps are completed until a final synthetic vitamin is created. It’s then dried and tested for purity before being shipped to distributors.
Now, to get a natural vitamin B1 supplement the process is quite different.
The food or botanical containing the desired vitamin is harvested and cleaned (let’s say wheat germ). It’s then placed in a vat to be mixed with water and filtered to create an extract and remove fibre (unlike in whole foods, where you want fibre). The post-filtration extract of the sourced food contains the nutrients found in the original whole food. It’s then dried and ready for packaging.
4. Food cultured
Example of a “whole food” labeled supplement
This involves the same process behind cultured foods like yogurt, kefir, miso, and sauerkraut. Nutrient supplements are often grown in yeast or algae. Culturing in and of itself creates nutrients and can make them more bioavailable.
Raw materials (minerals and some synthetic nutrients) are added to yeast/algae suspensions where they concentrate within cells. The yeast/algae are then harvested, ruptured, and made into a vitamin supplement. The theory here is that yeast/algae contain the nutrients they’re fed in a whole food complex.
Sometimes food cultured vitamins are combined with synthetic vitamins to increase potency (i.e., to bump up the milligram/microgram count on the label), since most have a low potency on their own. Remember, counting the milligrams of a synthetic vitamin might not be comparable to what’s found in whole foods.
5. Food based
One kind of food based supplement is made by enzymatically reacting synthetic and natural vitamins with extracts containing vegetable proteins and then making this into a supplement. This is not food cultured, because the nutrients are not grown into a whole food, as in the yeast/algae suspensions.
Manufacturers don’t often use concentrates or extracts derived from whole food sources because of low nutrient potency, fluctuating nutrient levels, limited shelf life. Nutrients are easily degraded by heat, pH changes, light, and oxygen.
Food based form of vitamin C
6. Bacterial fermentation
This includes nutrients produced by genetically altering bacteria. Genetically altered bacteria can produce nutrient by-products.
Examples include CoQ10, amino acids, ergocalciferol (vitamin D2), menaquinone (vitamin K2), riboflavin (fermentation of ribose), cyancobalamin (vitamin B12; this is exclusively obtained via fermentation processes, as the naturally occurring source of B12 is bacterial metabolic activity, think animal tissues/meat carrying bacteria), and melatonin.
For instance, vitamin D2 is made by artificially irradiating fungus. It’s not a naturally occurring form of vitamin D. The starting material is ergosterol, a type of plant sterol derived from fungal cell membranes. Ergosterol is turned into viosterol by ultraviolet light, and then converted into ergocalciferol (vitamin D2).
What you should know about vitamin supplements?
Full scale vitamin production started during the 1930s with widespread distribution after World War II. Now, about 1/3 of Americans use vitamin supplements.
Nutrients from food?
Most people are interested in vitamin supplements because they fear they don’t enough nutrients from food.
This is a worthwhile concern: nutrients can be lost from soil due to fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, irrigation, farming practices, and other causes. The USDA has reported that the nutrient content of vegetables has fallen since 1973. Of thevitamins we do ingest from whole food, absorption can range from 20 to 98%.
Do vitamin supplements prevent disease?
A 2002 study in JAMA concluded that adults would be better off taking a multivitamin supplement each day. The authors didn’t specify synthetic or natural. Other reviews have concluded that beyond treatment of deficiency, vitamin supplements don’t promote health or prevent cardiovascular disease and cancer.
Data indicates that vitamin supplements can actually lead to more cancer (specifically breast and prostate),cardiovascular disease, kidney damage (in those with diabetes), and fractures, while not helping prevent infections and sick days.
However, it’s important to remember that chances of certain chronic diseases can increase for those who are deficient in certain micronutrients.
The American Dietetic Association (ADA) recommends that the best nutritional strategy for optimal health and reducing the risk of chronic disease is to choose a wide variety of whole foods.