Synthetic vs Whole-Food Vitamins: Should You Buy Into The Hype?

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Synthetic vs Whole-Food Vitamins: Should You Buy Into The Hype?
By Morris Health • Issue #5 • View online
Whole food vitamins may not be as natural as commonly thought. Here’s the truth about what they contain and a review of the best vitamin brands you can buy online.

Vitamins are the most natural and safest of dietary supplements on the market…or so they may seem! Little do most people know, but almost all of the multivitamins and other nutritional supplements that are sold as natural contain synthetic vitamins, not “natural” ones!
Supplement companies don’t grind up fruits and vegetables to extract the nutrients and use them as ingredients in their products. Instead, they synthesize most of those nutrients in a lab. You’ve probably taken products that contain folic acid and ascorbic acid before – well, these are synthetic forms of vitamin B9 and vitamin C, respectively.
Why use synthetics? Because they are much easier and cheaper to make in mass quantities, and also easier to produce in precise, consistent dosages. Since most people are looking for cheap vitamins and not many would be willing to shell out $50-$100 for a bottle of multivitamin, it’s not surprising that most manufacturers choose synthetically made nutrients.
Now, although lab-made vitamins are considered “synthetic”, they are chemically similar to their naturally occurring counterparts and are believed to have similar effects in the body. Many human studies have been done using lab-synthesized nutrients and they are generally considered safe when used within recommended dosages.
There have been some concerns about potential side effects and health risks associated with the use of lab-made vitamins, but those are usually linked to cases involving overdosing.
The most notable safety concern with synthetic nutrients is that some manufacturers use excessive dosages of certain ingredients in their formulas, which can result in adverse effects for some people. For example, consuming too much pyridoxine (vitamin B6) can cause nerve damage or neuropathy, which may occur in people taking more than 50 mg per day over an extended period of time as some studies concluded. (1)
But what about whole food vitamins; aren’t those made from completely natural ingredients?
What Are Whole Food Vitamins?
The so-called “whole food” vitamins and supplements are ones that only contain food-sourced ingredients with no synthetics… Well, that’s not actually always true!
There is a lot of misinformation on the internet about whole food supplements. Basically, any product that contains some (even trace amounts) of powdered whole foods can claim to be a whole food supplement, but that does not mean that ALL of the ingredients in the product are derived from real/whole foods.
That’s right, most companies that sell whole food vitamins do use synthetic vitamins in their products. Some of them ferment the synthetic nutrients in a microbial culture and blend in some whole foods just so they can put “whole food” on the label.
Being labeled as a whole food supplement does not necessarily mean all of the ingredients are sourced from whole foods, but it simply means that the supplement contains some whole foods, even if that only comprises 5% of its content with the rest of the ingredients being synthetic. You have to read between the lines or even directly ask the company to figure out where the nutrients they use are sourced from.
Are Whole Food Vitamins Really Better?
The main advantage of whole food vitamins is that they are usually better tolerated and easier on the stomach. They are less likely to cause abdominal discomfort and other side effects, even when sometimes taken an empty stomach. However, this may not apply to all products, so some formulas may still cause issues for some people.
In terms of bioavailability and efficacy, it is often suggested that whole food vitamins are better absorbed and work more effectively than those with plain synthetic ingredients. However, such claims are mostly based on what the manufacturers of those supplements state as well as random user reviews, and both of these are not very reliable sources.
All in all, a whole food multivitamin may be more tolerable for you, although it may not have any remarkably better results than regular multivitamins.
Benefits of Whole Food Vitamins
  • Well tolerated and rarely cause adverse effects.
  • Contain a safe, moderate dosage of each ingredient.
  • Contain additional whole food ingredients that may aid with digestion and absorption of vitamins.
Drawbacks of Whole Food Vitamins
  • Higher cost – some come at double the regular price or even more.
  • Labels can be confusing and deceptive (whole-food vitamins does not mean food-derived vitamins).
  • Most whole food formulas use synthetic vitamins.
  • May not be suitable for certain medical uses that require megadoses of some nutrients.
  • Often overhyped when in reality they may not be much more beneficial or effective than regular vitamins.
When Should You Buy Synthetic Vitamins?
Whole food supplements normally contain moderate dosages and are suitable for general supplementation. They are a good choice for people who want to supplement their everyday diet with extra essential nutrients. You aren’t likely to experience any instant results when taking these, just like you don’t get instant results from nutrients in the food you eat.
However, given their relatively low dosage, whole food vitamins may not be suitable for medicinal use. Almost all medical-grade vitamin brands on the market use synthetic nutrients. If you require a high-dosage multivitamin or single vitamins, then these are mostly available in their isolated synthetic form, not as whole food supplements.
Another potential advantage of synthetic vitamins is that since they are mostly not made from food sources, they are less likely to contain any food allergens, which makes them more suitable for people with certain food allergies. That does not mean that all synthetic supplements are free from allergens, because some do contain ingredients that are derived from soy, corn, etc. So always check the label of any specific product you intend to purchase to make sure it does not contain any problematic ingredients for you.
Whole food supplements normally contain moderate dosages and are suitable for general supplementation. They are a good choice for people who want to supplement their everyday diet with extra essential nutrients. You aren’t likely to experience any instant results when taking these, just like you don’t get instant results from nutrients in the food you eat.
However, given their relatively low dosage, whole food vitamins may not be suitable for medicinal use. Almost all medical-grade vitamin brands on the market use synthetic nutrients. If you require a high-dosage multivitamin or single vitamins, then these are mostly available in their isolated synthetic form, not as whole food supplements.
Another potential advantage of synthetic vitamins is that since they are mostly not made from food sources, they are less likely to contain any food allergens, which makes them more suitable for people with certain food allergies. That does not mean that all synthetic supplements are free from allergens, because some do contain ingredients that are derived from soy, corn, etc. So always check the label of any specific product you intend to purchase to make sure it does not contain any problematic ingredients for you.
Benefits of Synthetic Vitamins
  • The cost is generally lower.
  • Can contain much higher dosages which may be needed in certain cases.
  • Have higher purity and usually come free from food allergens.
Drawbacks of Synthetic Vitamins
  • Excess amounts of some vitamins may cause side effects for some people.
  • Some synthetic nutrients may have a poor absorption rate and lower bioavailability.
Don’t Buy What You Don’t Need
It can be tempting to go on a shopping spree for supplements, especially after reading some glorious 5-star reviews on Amazon and hearing all about the amazing results others have had with some product… Well, that’s a bad idea!
First of all, Amazon is not where you should be buying vitamins or any other health products from. The platform has lots of fake products and fake reviews, and the fact that they allow anyone to sell almost anything makes it an unreliable place to shop for edible or health products. Not to mention that there are many complaints about receiving damaged products from Amazon, probably due to poor storage and handling conditions.
Secondly, never buy any supplement merely based on the reviews! There are so many varying individual factors that can affect how each body responds to a certain supplement and the results can dramatically vary from person to person. You could spend $100 on the best multivitamin that has thousands of positive reviews and yet experience no effects whatsoever.
Vitamins in particular are among the most overrated products that most people should not be wasting their money on. There are only a few cases where taking vitamins may actually be worth it, and the best source of advice on this would be a qualified health professional, not online reviews. You can also do your own research, but it’s not so easy to find credible information or conclusive answers while digging through online sources.
Do Multivitamins Increase Energy?
Different vitamins and minerals are involved in energy production and regulation in the body. A study published in the Nutrients journal found that B vitamins, vitamin C, iron and magnesium all play key roles in energy production, and that a deficiency in one or more of these nutrients may lead to physical and mental fatigue, among many other symptoms. (2)
However, it would take a chronic deficiency in these nutrients to experience a noticeable decrease in energy levels, and that is rarely the case. If you consume a balanced diet that includes various fruits and/or vegetables, you probably won’t notice a difference in your energy levels after taking a multivitamin.
But this does vary from one person to another. For example, older people and those with gastrointestinal disorders may not absorb enough amounts of the nutrients needed for energy production, and thus additional supplementation may have a significant positive effect.
Another example is vegans who may not be consuming adequate amounts of vitamin B12 (found mostly in meat and dairy products). This vitamin is essential for cellular energy production and a chronic deficiency can cause fatigue and weakness in addition to several other symptoms. If you are a vegan and don’t already consume enough vitamin B12 from sources like fortified foods, then taking a supplement that contains this essential nutrient may be worthwhile.
There are also other herbal and natural supplements that may help boost energy levels;
Ashwagandha and Rhodiola Rosea are two of the most potent adaptogenic herbs that help the body combat the negative effects of stress and fatigue, and both are widely used to enhance physical and mental performance. (3)(4)
Citrulline and arginine are amino acids that help boost blood circulation and increase physical energy. They are particularly popular among athletes who use them to improve strength and performance. (5)(6)
Caffeine is also a powerful mental energy booster and may work better when combined with theanine (an amino acid that helps counteract the negative side effects of caffeine). (7)
There are different formulas out there with different ingredients and dosages, and finding the right one for you may ultimately take some trial and error.
Do Vitamin Supplements Have Side Effects?
Natural vitamins found in real food are quite harmless, so you can safely consume as much as you’d like of those, but the same can’t be said about supplements. A major safety concern with supplements is the excessive amounts of certain nutrients that many products contain, which in some cases and for some users may lead to remarkable adverse effects.
The following are some examples of potential health risks and side effects:
  • Taking too much vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) can cause nerve damage (neuropathy). This seems to occur at dosages higher than 50 mg per day but may also be experienced when consuming lower dosages. (8)
  • High amounts of vitamin C may cause nausea, diarrhea and abdominal discomfort. (9)
  • Vitamin B3 (niacin) in the form of nicotinic acid can cause flushing, rash, headache, dizziness and low blood pressure. (10)
  • Excess iron can cause stomach pain, vomiting, nausea and liver damage. (11)
  • Vitamin B9 in the form of folic acid has been suspected of causing cognitive impairment, hindering the immune system and increasing the risk of some cancers in some people. (12) These risks may arise when consuming more than 1,000 mcg (1 mg) per day for adults. There hasn’t been a solid clinical evidence to support these claims, so when used in moderation, folic acid is still generally considered safe. However, with alternative forms of B9 readily available, it’s arguably better to avoid folic acid.
Which Whole Food Vitamin Brands Are The Best?
The following are two of the most trustworthy companies that make whole food supplements:
GOL products are very clean and free from GMOs, harmful synthetics, and unnecessary fillers and additives. They offer two main lines of vitamin formulas: Vitamin Code and MyKind Organics.
The Vitamin Code selection uses fermented synthetic vitamins, which are combined with different natural ingredients, enzymes, probiotics, etc.
The MyKind Organics selection only uses food-sourced vitamins from a blend of organic fruits and vegetables without any synthetic ingredients, according to the company’s claim. This line includes some of the best multivitamins on the market in terms of quality and cleanness. They are certified organic and vegan, and are as close to natural as a dietary supplement can get.
This popular brand is a good example of the misconception that many consumers have about whole food supplements. Yes, New Chapter does make whole food vitamins, and yes, they do use synthetic vitamins (we explained this above).
The main difference between New Chapter’s synthetic vitamins and the ones found in most other products is that this company ferments the nutrients in a growth medium (yeast culture). Fermented vitamins are “predigested” by microorganisms and contain additional nutrients and enzymes that can have added benefits.
The main claimed advantage is that fermented nutrients are more efficiently digested and absorbed by the body than non-fermented ones, however, there doesn’t seem to be much scientific data to support this claim.
After they ferment the essential nutrients (vitamins and minerals), they add in a blend of herbs and whole foods to create the final formula. But if you check the labels of their whole food products, you’ll notice that most of them only contain minimal dosages (trace amounts) of those whole foods, which probably won’t have much of an effect anyway.
Nevertheless, it is reasonable to say that New Chapter’s formulas are a better choice than those with plain synthetic vitamins. The company has outstanding quality standards, but it’s important that you understand what exactly you’re buying.
Other Reputable Brands (Not Whole Food)
If you’re looking for medical-grade supplements, then low-dosage whole food products may not quite cut it, and you may have to go with synthetic vitamins instead. In that case, the following are five of the best and most trusted supplement brands that you may want to consider:
  1. Vital Nutrients (premium brand)
  2. Pure Encapsulations (premium brand)
  3. Solgar (affordable brand)
  4. Country Life (affordable brand)
  5. Jarrow Formulas (affordable brand)
Conclusion
The majority of whole food vitamins on the market contain synthetic vitamins in addition to a blend of whole foods. Many people mistakenly assume (or are tricked to believe) that such supplements only contain food-sourced ingredients, which is not usually the case.
Regardless if it is a whole food supplement or otherwise, most people should have no reason to take vitamins if they stick to a healthy diet and regularly consume plenty of nutritious vegetables and fruits. Vitamin and mineral supplements may only be beneficial in certain cases, such as a severe chronic deficiency.
Take all health claims and rave reviews with a grain of salt. No multivitamin will ever be better for your health than a handful of nutritious whole foods. If you are a healthy individual and have no specific medical reason to take vitamins, then load up on leafy green vegetables, berries, citrus fruits, nuts, seeds and whole grains, and you can skip all the hyped-up multivitamins!
References:
  1. Ghavanini, Amer A, and Kurt Kimpinski. “Revisiting the evidence for neuropathy caused by pyridoxine deficiency and excess.” Journal of clinical neuromuscular disease vol. 16,1 (2014): 25-31. doi:10.1097/CND.0000000000000049
  2. Tardy, Anne-Laure et al. “Vitamins and Minerals for Energy, Fatigue and Cognition: A Narrative Review of the Biochemical and Clinical Evidence.” Nutrients vol. 12,1 228. 16 Jan. 2020, doi:10.3390/nu12010228
  3. Singh, Narendra et al. “An overview on ashwagandha: a Rasayana (rejuvenator) of Ayurveda.” African journal of traditional, complementary, and alternative medicines : AJTCAM vol. 8,5 Suppl (2011): 208-13. doi:10.4314/ajtcam.v8i5S.9
  4. Khanum, Farhath et al. “Rhodiola rosea: A Versatile Adaptogen.” Comprehensive reviews in food science and food safety vol. 4,3 (2005): 55-62. doi:10.1111/j.1541-4337.2005.tb00073.x
  5. Takeda, Kohei et al. “Effects of citrulline supplementation on fatigue and exercise performance in mice.” Journal of nutritional science and vitaminology vol. 57,3 (2011): 246-50. doi:10.3177/jnsv.57.246
  6. Gonzalez, Adam M, and Eric T Trexler. “Effects of Citrulline Supplementation on Exercise Performance in Humans: A Review of the Current Literature.” Journal of strength and conditioning research vol. 34,5 (2020): 1480-1495. doi:10.1519/JSC.0000000000003426
  7. Owen, Gail N et al. “The combined effects of L-theanine and caffeine on cognitive performance and mood.” Nutritional neuroscience vol. 11,4 (2008): 193-8. doi:10.1179/147683008X301513
  8. “Pyridoxine Hydrochloride.” PubChem, National Library of Medicine
  9. “Vitamin C - Health Professional Fact Sheet.” Office of Dietary Supplements, National Institutes of Health
  10. “Niacin - Health Professional Fact Sheet.” Office of Dietary Supplements, National Institutes of Health
  11. “Iron - Health Professional Fact Sheet.” Office of Dietary Supplements, National Institutes of Health
  12. “Folate - Health Professional Fact Sheet.” Office of Dietary Supplements, National Institutes of Health
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