As a large percentage of the population begins to turn its attention to healthy practices, taking supplements is becoming a staple of a lot of people’s diets. In fact, over half the population used a dietary supplement of some form from 2003 to 2006.1 This number is only going to grow.
While some look to incorporate supplements in order to maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle, seemingly a majority look to use them as a means to continue unhealthy diets and eating habits. After all, the average American simply does not receive enough vitamins and minerals through diet alone.2 Because of this, many continue to add a comprehensive supplement like a multivitamin to their routines in order to fill in the gaps in their nutrient intake.
With that being said, a majority of people that use some form of supplement use synthetic supplements rather than herbal or natural supplements from real food sources. There is a lot of debate as to whether or not synthetic vitamins and minerals offer the same benefits as natural alternatives. There is even some debate as to whether synthetic vitamins and minerals might be bad for people in general.
Highlighted below is an explanation of the differences between synthetic and natural supplements and how they can impact the body differently.
Synthetic supplements are typically produced to closely mimic natural nutrients. They are made in a lab and manufactured with chemicals. Because of this, they are not natural sources of the vitamin they are mimicking. Because they do not contain natural sources, they lack various co-factors that you would find with naturally-derived vitamins, which limits their effectiveness on the body. Additionally, they are inherently less bioavailable.
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With that being said, some synthetic alternatives have shown no difference in bioavailability such as vitamin C/ascorbic acid.3 Another nutrient that is more readily available in its synthetic form is folic acid, (a synthetic form of folate) which is why health professionals always recommend women of childbearing age to take some sort of folic acid supplement.4
Whole Food Supplements or Natural Supplements
The supplements that are made up of natural nutrients are typically manufactured with whole food sources. This means that they are going to feature naturally-occurring vitamins and minerals versus chemicals that you would find in synthetic alternatives.
There are plenty of cases where naturally derived nutrients promote much greater bioavailability, such as the case with Vitamin E. It has been shown that natural vitamin E can be effectively absorbed two times as efficiently as its synthetic counterpart.5 Vitamin B12 also features poor absorption rate, with synthetic vitamins coming in at a 56 percent absorption rate.6
How Do You Know If a Supplement Is Synthetic or Natural?
If you’re looking to identify whether or not a supplement is naturally derived or comes from synthetic sources, you’re going to want to look at the label. By checking the label, you should be able to distinguish what kind of supplement it is.
You should be looking at the primary ingredients in the supplement for the biggest tell-tale sign. Natural supplements will typically list whole food sources on the label. Another way that you should be able to tell is if the supplement manufacturer labels the supplement as either 100 percent animal or plant-based. If the supplement uses synthetic ingredients, you will typically find synthetic chemicals listed throughout the ingredient section.
Which One Is Better?
While using supplements made from whole-foods might not necessarily give you the edge in terms of vitamin or mineral content, it can offer you various other benefits that you wouldn’t normally get from synthetic alternatives.
For instance, if you are consuming whole-food based vitamins and minerals, you are likely going to be taking in various other nutrients along with them, including but not limited to fiber, healthy fats, and more. With synthetic supplements, you are typically only getting the specific synthetic chemical it offers.
When it comes to figuring out which one you should be taking, there is not one single answer for every nutrient you will find. As mentioned above, some vitamins feature greater bioavailability in natural form, while others are more bioavailable in their synthetic form. The key is taking these supplements for the right reasons and in the proper quantity.
This is advice you should be able to get from your doctor. They will be able to tell you based on either your blood tests, diet, or age whether or not you are a candidate for taking supplements and what kinds you should be taking.
The truth is, if you are someone who follows an optimized diet full of fruits, vegetables, and proteins, you’ll likely get little additional benefit from taking a supplement like a multivitamin, natural or synthetic. However, those that have poor nutrient intakes from diet alone and those with special diets will likely benefit from taking multivitamin supplements.
A majority of the vitamins and minerals that you can take are going to have greater bioavailability (higher absorption rates) when taken in natural form. However, there are some cases as mentioned above where the differences are nonexistent or minimal. The key is getting the nutrients into your daily diet in general, whether synthetic or natural. That way, you’ll be able to supply your body with all of the nutrients that it requires for crucial bodily processes.
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