There’s a lot of confusion—and misinformation—about what’s natural and what’s not when it comes to nutritional supplements. So we’re going to try to clear some of the confusion and misunderstandings.
What’s natural and what’s synthetic when it comes to vitamin supplements?
Many people envision vitamins being squeezed from foods and then put into tablets, capsules, and beverages. While picturesque, this is not the case. Various technologies are used to extract or produce vitamins. These technologies help ensure consistency and safety in the products HAVVN provides. Some vitamins can be described as “natural-source” or “nature-like,” whereas some synthetic vitamins (e.g., synthetic vitamin E) are derived from petroleum byproducts. HAVVN uses “natural sources” for vitamin fortification in our products.
For example, nearly all of the vitamin C used in supplements is produced from corn sugar. This is similar to how the vast majority of animals make their own vitamin C; they convert blood sugar to the vitamin in their liver or kidneys. The difference is that vitamin suppliers use technology to make vitamin C from corn sugar on a much larger scale. As another example, B vitamins are produced through a process called bacterial synthesis. Basically, vats of harmless bacteria are grown to make the B vitamins. This process is comparable to how bacteria in the intestines of people make small amounts of some B vitamins, such as B3.[i] Again, the difference is one of scale.
Some people believe that making vitamin C from corn sugar or B vitamins from bacteria is synthetic or unnatural. We believe these processes have strong similarities to how these vitamins are produced in nature.
Is ascorbic acid synthetic vitamin C?
Ascorbic acid is simply the chemical name of vitamin C, just as alpha tocopherol is the chemical name for vitamin E and thiamine is the chemical name for vitamin B1. Every compound in nature has a chemical name and formula.
Vitamin C has diverse benefits in our health. It is required for the body’s production of collagen, a protein that makes up most of our tissues, including our skin. It is a potent antioxidant, which protects against cell-damaging molecules called free radicals. Recent research has shown that vitamin C also has broad effects on our genes. In one experiment, using a technique called gene-array analysis, researchers found that vitamin C affected the activity of 6,000 genes in liver cells—almost one-third of our genes.
Aren’t “whole-food” supplements more natural?
There are many misunderstandings about what whole-food supplements are and are not.
First, if a product uses ground-up dehydrated food as the only source of its vitamins, the amounts of the vitamins will be very low. This is because vitamins occur in relatively small amounts in foods, even in vitamin-rich foods. For example, it is impossible to insert the 300 mg of vitamin C (found in the GO Stick) along with its bulky whole-food source into a small stick pack or tiny capsule. Second, the dehydration and manufacturing process of whole-food supplements would likely destroy much of the vitamin C, as well as other vitamins.
Third, many whole-food vitamin supplements actually consist of small amounts of dehydrated foods with commercially sourced vitamins, such as vitamin C and the B vitamins, to make higher potency supplements. These are not really whole-food supplements, so the practice is dishonest. Not surprisingly, whole-food companies don’t like acknowledging this practice.
Fourth, a high-quality supplement should provide amounts of vitamins greater than what would be found in most foods—to provide an advantage in terms of ensuring nutritional adequacy and reducing the long-term risk of disease. Because of their inherently low-dosages, whole-food supplements cannot provide this benefit.
Are vitamin supplements safe?
Vitamins and other types of supplements are exceptionally safe—far safer than over-the-counter and prescription medicines. According to the latest report from the American Association of Poison Control Centers, not a single American died from any type of vitamin, mineral, amino acid, or herbal supplement in 2009 (the latest year for which statistics are currently available). This report is consistent with previously published analyses.[ii]
What about the sources and safety of vitamin D?
Vitamin D supplements come in one of two forms: ergocalciferol and cholecalciferol. Ergocalciferol is made from ergosterol, which is found in the membranes and yeast and fungal cells (but not plants per se). Cholecalciferol is made from sheep lanolin.
People make their own vitamin D when their skin is exposed to ultraviolet light from the sun for a few minutes or longer. The exposure to UV light converts 7-dehydrocholesterol in the skin to cholecalciferol, which is then converted to calcidiol and then to the hormone calcitriol. Calcitriol is the active form of vitamin D.
Years ago, vitamin D was believed to be toxic in large amounts. This misconception was based on a very small study—now known to be inaccurate. Over the past 10 years, there has been a renaissance in vitamin D research. Studies have shown that a person would have to take an entire bottle of vitamin D daily for months for toxicity to occur. Research has shown than three of every four Americans do not have normal or optimal levels of vitamin D.[iii]
Vitamin D can reduce the risk of many diseases, including infection (e.g., colds and flus), cancer, heart disease, and depression.[iv] The vitamin also activates more than 1,000 genes, prompting them to do their jobs. In addition, vitamin D also functions as an “autocrine agent,” meaning that cells secrete the active form of vitamin D, which turns around to regulate those cells’ activities.[v] Experts now recommend that everyone take at least 1,000 IU of vitamin D daily.[vi] [vii] This is the reason the HAVVN GO Stick has 1,000 IU of vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol).
Is there a difference between natural-source and synthetic vitamin E?
There is a huge difference. Studies of people have shown that natural-source vitamin E supplements are assimilated twice as well as synthetic vitamin E.[viii] Natural-source vitamin E can be identified on labels as d-alpha tocopherol. Synthetic vitamin E is identified as dl-alpha tocopherol. If a vitamin E supplement does not include the “d” or “dl” in fine print on the label, it is likely synthetic. The HAVVN DNA skin care products and the HAVVN GO Stick contain the natural d-alpha tocopherol vitamin E.
But isn’t alpha tocopherol just one of eight different forms of vitamin E?
Vitamin E consists of four related molecules known as tocopherols and four related molecules known as tocotrienols. However, alpha tocopherol appears to be the most biologically active form of vitamin E, and the vast majority of research on vitamin E (since the 1920s) has used the alpha tocopherol form. Alpha tocopherol is by far the most common type of vitamin E sold as a supplement.
Scientists have identified a specific transport mechanism in the body that delivers alpha tocopherol to tissues.[ix] No such transport mechanism has been identified for the other forms of vitamin E. Alpha tocopherol is the form of vitamin E considered to be nutritionally essential. The other seven forms of vitamin E are found only in trace amounts in foods and, while they are probably helpful as minor antioxidants, no one yet knows if they are essential for health.
What’s the difference between folate, folic acid, and folinate?
Folate is the form of vitamin B9 found in plants, and folic acid is a synthetic form of the nutrient (although the body converts it to the natural form). Folinate, such as calcium folinate (used in HAVVN GO Sticks), is a natural or nature-like form of the vitamin.
Why would one want to take large amounts of vitamins, such as amount above the federal government’s Daily Value (DV)?
Like the Recommended Daily Allowances (RDAs), the DVs are a very conservative standard, which is intended to ensure complete safety for millions of people. Unfortunately, such a cautious approach limits the potential benefits of vitamin supplements. Many scientists and doctors believe it is better to focus on larger amounts to achieve optimal nutrition.
There is considerable research showing that vitamin deficiencies are involved in the development of many different diseases. Obtaining optimal amounts of vitamins from the diet or supplements can reduce the risk of developing these diseases.[x] [xi]
Some people claim that vitamin supplements increase the risk of death—is this true?
Absolutely false! This misconception is based mostly on two reports that have been widely criticized. In both instances, the researchers did not actually conduct a study on people. Rather, they did a statistical analysis on previously published studies that, ironically, were generally positive or neutral. This statistical approach, called a meta-analysis, is prone to errors, depending on the consistency or inconsistency of the original research. Another problem is that meta-analyses do not include subsequent critiques of the original studies, so flaws are typically ignored.
In one of the reports, the researchers looked at 19 studies in which vitamin E was given to people with heart disease and Alzheimer’s. The researchers concluded that vitamin E increased the risk of “all-cause mortality” very slightly. All-cause mortality meant the researchers did not know the exact causes of death among groups of elderly and critically ill patients, and yet they still attributed the deaths to vitamin E.[xii] [xiii]
In the other report, researchers analyzed on 68 antioxidant studies in which deaths occurred, but ignored 405 other studies in which there were no deaths—and where antioxidants probably saved lives. This statistical analysis looked at several different types and dosages of antioxidants, given from one day to years—a real hodgepodge of data. Again, the researchers did not know the actual causes of death, so their conclusions have to be viewed skeptically.[xiv]
Does too much folate increase the risk of colorectal cancer?
No, it does not, and it does not make sense biochemically. This idea is based on several speculative reports (again, not actual studies of people) by the same researcher and some of his colleagues, suggesting that folic acid might promote the growth of colorectal cancer.[xv] [xvi] The idea was promulgated by repetition in medical journals, newspaper stories, and the internet, but it is false.
Subsequent medical journal reports have found no association between folic acid or folate and colorectal cancer. In fact, they found that folic acid appeared to be protective.[xvii] One of the most recent studies was conducted by researchers at the American Cancer Society, who concluded, “Intake of high levels of total folate reduces risk of colorectal cancer; there is no evidence that dietary fortification or supplementation with this vitamin increases colorectal cancer risk.”[xviii]
One of the roles of folate is in the “epigenetic” regulation of our genes. Folic acid plays an essential role in the production of chemical units called “methyl groups.” These methyl groups attach to genes and, in doing so, regulate the activity of those genes. Methyl groups are known to turn off many of the genes involved in promoting cancer.
Are vitamins really effective in preventing disease?
This issue is really about reducing risk, as opposed to guaranteeing prevention. No one guarantee complete prevention, but the scientific evidence indicates that taking a multivitamin and many types of individual vitamins can reduce a person’s risk of disease. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, large numbers of Americans do not obtain optimal amounts of vitamins or minerals, a situation that would increase the risk of disease. [xix] No one benefits from a nutritional deficiency.
For example, USDA data indicate that 81 percent of Americans do not consume recommended amounts of vitamin E, 75 percent do not consume enough folic acid, 54 percent do not consume sufficient vitamin A, and roughly one-fourth- of Americans fail to get enough B vitamins. Furthermore, many drugs, such as acid-blockers, reduce the absorption of vitamins.[xx]
According to a study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, only one-half of middle-age and older men and women were able to obtain recommended amounts of vitamins and minerals from their diets. However, 80 percent of them were able to obtain the recommended amounts when taking vitamin and mineral supplements.[xxi] This study demonstrates the importance of vitamin supplements.
One of the ways a multivitamin can reduce the risk of disease is by controlling inflammation, which is involved in every disease process. Deficiencies of some nutrients can affect the body’s ability to regulate inflammation and may even stimulate inflammation.[xxii] In fact, several studies have found that multivitamins can reduce levels of C-reactive protein, an important marker of inflammation. Like other types of supplements, a multi can have many “side benefits.” Still other studies have shown that vitamin supplements can lower the risk of heart disease, as well as the rate of gene damage—important for lowering the risk of cancer.[xxiii] [xxiv] [xxv]
Jack Challem, B.A., A.S.N., is the author of more than 20 books on nutrition, including No More Fatigue (Wiley, 2011), Stop Prediabetes Now (Wiley, 2007) and Feed Your Genes Right (Wiley 2005). A member of the American Society for Nutrition, Jack also writes and publishes The Nutrition Reporter™ newsletter. Sample issues of his newsletter and excerpts from his books are available at jackchallem.com. Jack serves as a consultant to HAVVN.
[i] O’Neil MJ. The Merck Index. Fourteenth Edition. Whitehouse Station, New Jersey: Merck Research Laboratories: 2006.
[iii] Ginde AA, Liu MC, Camargo CA. Demographic differences and trends of vitamin D insufficiency in the US population, 1988-2004. Archives of Internal Medicine, 2009;169: 626-632.
[iv] Garland CF, Garland FC, Gorham ED, et al. The role of vitamin D in cancer prevention. American Journal of Public Health, 2006;96:252-261.
[v] Heaney RP, Vieth R, Hollis BW. Vitamin D efficacy and safety. Archives of Internal Medicine, 2011;171:266.
[vi] Vieth R. What is the optimal vitamin D status for health? Prog Biophys Mol Biol, 2006;92:26-32.
[vii] Vieth R. Critique of the considerations for establishing the tolerable upper intake level for vitamin D: critical need for revision upwards. Journal of Nutrition, 2006;136:1117-22.
[viii] Acuff RV, Thedford SS, Hidiroglou NN, et al. Relative bioavailability of RRR- and all-rac-alpha-tocopheryl acetate in humans: studies using deuterated compounds. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 1994;60:397-402.
[ix] Traber MG, Arai H. Molecular mechanisms of vitamin E transport. Annual Review of Nutrition, 1999;19:343-55.
[x] Ames BN. The metabolic tune-up: metabolic harmony and disease prevention. Journal of Nutrition, 2003;133(5 Suppl 1):1544S-8S
[xi] Ames BN, Elson-Schwab I, Silver EA. High-dose vitamin therapy stimulates variant enzymes with decreased coenzyme binding affinity (increased K(m)): relevance to genetic disease and polymorphisms. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2002;75:616-58.
[xii] Miller ER 3rd, Pastor-Barriuso R, Dalal D, et al. Meta-analysis: high-dosage vitamin E supplementation may increase all-cause mortality. Annals of Internal Medicine, 2005;142:37-46.
[xiii] Gerss J, Kopcke W. The questionable association of vitamin E supplementation and mortality – inconsistent results of different meta-analytic approaches. Cellular and Molecular Biology, 2009;55:OL1111-OL1120.
[xiv] Bjelakovic G, Nikolova D, Gluud LL, et al. Mortality in randomized trials of antioxidant supplements for primary and secondary prevention. Systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA, 2007;297:842-857.
[xv] Protiva P, Mason JB, Liu Z, et al. Altered folate availability modifies the molecular environment of the human colorectum: implications for colorectal carcinogenesis. Cancer Prevention Research, 2011;4:530-43.
[xvi] Mason JB. Folate, cancer risk, and the Greek god, Proteus: a tale of two
chameleons. Nutrition Reviews, 2009;67:206-212.
[xvii] Lee JE, Willett WC, Fuchs CS, et al. Folate intake and risk of colorectal cancer and adenoma: modification by time. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2011;93:817-25.
[xviii] Stevens VL, McCullough ML, Sun J, et al. High levels of folate from supplements and fortification are not associated with increased risk of colorectal cancer. Gastroenterology, 2011: Epub ahead of print.
[xx] Dharmarajan TS, Kanagala MR, Murakonda P, et al. Do acid-lowering agents affect vitamin B12 status in older adults? Journal of the American Medical Directors Association, 2008;9:162-167.
[xxi] Sebastian RS, Cleveland LE, Goldman JD, et al. Older adults who use vitamin/mineral supplements differ from nonusers in nutrient intake adequacy and dietary attitudes. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 2007;107:1322-1332.
[xxii] Church TS, Earnest CP, Wood KA, et al. Reduction of C-reactive protein levels through use of a multivitamin. American Journal of Medicine, 2003;115:702-707.
[xxiii] Meyer F, Bairati I, Dagenais GR. Lower ischemic heart disease incidence and mortality among vitamin supplement users. Canadian Journal of Cardiology, 1996;12:930-934.
[xxiv] Pocobelli G, Peters U, Kristal AR, et al. Use of supplements of multivitamins, vitamin C, and vitamin E in Relation to Mortality. American Journal of Epidemiology, 2009; 170:472-83.
[xxv] Ribeiro ML, Arçari DP, Squassoni AC, etal. Effects of multivitamin supplementation on DNA damage in lymphocytes from elderly volunteers. Mechanisms of Ageing and Development, 2007;128:577-580.