Synthetic vs Natural Supplements: Does It Matter?

For two decades, we at the Hippocrates Health Institute have conducted an ongoing experiment that is unique in the annals of nutritional science: We have examined through a high-powered microscope the blood of more than 11,000 of our guests who were users of synthetic supplements when they arrived at our institute. 

We measured the nutrient levels in their bodies before they began our three-week residency program, and after. Specifically, we were interested in the differential between red and white blood cell counts, which are an indication of cell strength (with an increased count) and malabsorption or cell deficiency in the case of decreased counts.

What we discovered has remained constant throughout those two decades: There was little to no absorption and retention of synthetic vitamin nutrients in the more than 11,000 users of pharmaceutical-grade supplements whose blood we drew and tested. 

Furthermore, we studied leukocytes, with Spectracell technology, to determine which nutrients were being absorbed. The cells in individuals using chemical supplements consistently showed a significant deficiency of nutrients at the beginning of our program compared to the end of the program, highlighting the virtual uselessness of laboratory-created supplements.

Once they enter our three-week program, guests at Hippocrates ingest only a whole-foods organic and raw diet that includes naturally occurring supplements made from whole foods. We offer what is arguably the most nutrient-rich diet of any program in the world. At the end of three weeks, we test our guests’ blood a second time and compare the before and after results.

What we have measured and documented is the phenomenal ability of the human body to absorb and retain natural nutrients that assist in the process of healing and rejuvenating the immune system. 

At least 75 percent of people previously taking synthetic nutrients who completed our program showed a dramatic turnaround in the nutrient levels measured in the second round of blood

testing. Their nutritional deficiencies had been remedied in that short time frame.

We also noticed that people most saturated with synthetic supplement chemicals exhibited many of the symptoms of drug addiction. I have seen this disturbing phenomenon dozens of times. 

As they are coming off the synthetics, often the kind that is administered intravenously, they shake and experience tremors. Their eyes roll back in their heads and they sweat profusely. It is a frightening sight. Most of these people were not otherwise ill, but the synthetic supplements were clearly toxic to them.

What we have seen firsthand in a clinical setting has been confirmed by laboratory research that compared natural and synthetic biological effects on the human body. Not only that but despite what many mainstream chemists may claim—that there is no difference between molecules of synthetic nutrients and the natural nutrients they were designed to mimic—persuasive evidence has accumulated that important differences do exist. These differences in turn affect our absorption of nutrients and our overall level of health.

One of the more significant studies demonstrating the molecular separation between natural compounds and synthetics was published in 2002 by the Journal of Chemical Information and Computer Science in an article titled “Differences Between Drugs, Natural Products, and Molecules From Combinatorial Chemistry.” 

“Natural molecules differ substantially from synthetic ones,” wrote the two chemists from Canada who co-authored the study, Miklos Feher and Jonathan Schmidt. They pointed out the ways in which most previous molecular studies had failed to “distinguish natural products and natural product derivatives, molecules that contain both natural and synthetic elements.” 

So these scientists launched a simultaneous and systematic comparison of all three classes of compounds: synthetic drugs, compounds composed of both natural and synthetic materials, and wholly naturally occurring compounds.

“Natural compounds are highly diverse and often provide highly specific biological activities,” they concluded. Neither the synthetic nor the partially synthetic molecular compounds could match the natural benefits afforded to the human body. A key difference was the four-times-higher numbers of “chiral centers” in natural molecules, a term that refers to binding sites that enable molecules to be absorbed by the human body.

Natural molecules contain a greater number of heavy atoms and twice as many oxygen atoms as partial or whole synthetics and these atoms are also distributed differently in more advantageous ways in those occurring naturally.

Photosynthesis and “the pathways leading to different carbohydrates” were identified as being responsible for the higher occurrence of oxygen in natural products. All of these differences contribute to greater absorption and permeation for natural molecules that makes them much more biologically active, and thus more beneficial to health than synthetics. The two researchers observed that replacing natural compounds with synthetics relies on “unfavourable modifications” that render synthetics unable to compete with the biological activity of naturally occurring products.

Another reason for differences at the molecular level between natural and synthetic nutrients may have been identified by research conducted by Dr. Gunter Blobel, a cell and molecular biologist at Rockefeller University in New York, who received the 1999 Nobel Prize in Physiology for this work. He found that proteins possess inherent signals or information that determine which cells attract and absorb them and wherein the cell the protein belongs.

This finding of proteins opened a doorway for intercellular chemical research that provides us with a principle that has applications for the issue of synthetic and natural nutrients. Nutrients do not simply wander around inside the human body in search of a nutrient-poor cell to colonize. Instead, it is as if nutrients contain addresses and zip codes that enable them to be delivered directly to cells containing the same addresses and zip codes. 

This is nature’s postal system within the body, and synthetic nutrients isolated in laboratories cannot match the simplicity and effectiveness of that system. It is a system that helps to explain why natural nutrients are much more absorbable and bioavailable to us than synthetics.

This point was made more concrete in contrasts that have been made between natural and synthetic vitamin E, an important antioxidant known as the body’s lubricant. In a 1998 science article titled “Recent Advances in Oxidative Stress and Antioxidants in Medicine” in The Journal of Orthomolecular Medicine, Dr.

John Smythies wrote:

The effective level of vitamin E necessary to protect against heart attacks is between 400-800 mg/day of the natural form. The synthetic form is much less effective. The former consists of a number of stereo-isomers of alpha-tocopherol, whereas the latter consists of only one. This difference is important.

Vitamins are biological complexes. They represent multi-step biochemical interactions whose beneficial action depends upon a number of variables within the biological terrain. Correct vitamin activity can only take place when all cofactors and components of the vitamin complex are present and working together synergistically. Vitamins cannot be isolated from their complexes and still perform their specific functions within the cells.

When isolated into artificial chemicalized commercial forms, these purified, isolated, crystalline synthetics act as toxic drugs in the body. Their effect is to compromise the immune system, which can ultimately hasten illness and disease. They are no longer actual vitamins. A vitamin is “a working process consisting of the nutrient, enzymes, coenzymes, antioxidants, and trace mineral activators,” as vitamin pioneer Dr. Royal Lee defined it.

Theron Randolph, MD, who in 1965 cofounded the American Academy of Environmental Medicine, wrote four books and more than 300 medical articles and was a leading researcher in the fields of food and chemical allergies, as well as general preventive care. Consider the way he has delineated the difference between natural and synthetic nutrients:

A synthetically derived substance may cause a reaction in a chemically susceptible person when the same material of natural origin is tolerated, despite the two substances having identical chemical structures. The point is illustrated by the frequency of clinical reactions to synthetic vitamins—especially vitamin B1 and [vitamin] C when the [same] naturally occurring vitamins are tolerated” (Tim O’Shea, “Whole Food Vitamins: Ascorbic Acid Is Not Vitamin C”

Synthetic vitamins are actually just fractions of naturally occurring vitamins synthesized in the dextro- and levo-forms (known as right-and left-handed or right- and left-turning molecules) that form geometric mirror images of each other. It may seem strange, but the geometry of nutrient compounds is crucial for the bioavailability of the nutrient. This is also known as the “chirality” of the molecule and relates to the direction in which it turns, specifically to the left or right.

Many organic molecules such as vitamins and other nutritional compounds are chiral and have complex structures that are often asymmetric. Although chirality seems like a subtle difference, it plays an important role in the biological activity of a molecule.

The body uses mainly the dextro forms (right-turning forms). Synthetic vitamin compounds have very few of the dextro forms that are present in naturally occurring vitamins, foods, and botanicals. 

Furthermore, the dextro forms of synthetic nutrients or vitamins are of little use without the associated factors (enzymes, minerals, and other cofactors) that are only present in a whole, natural source of the nutrient or vitamin. 

Therefore, in order for a vitamin supplement to be effective and fully useful to the body, it must remain in its original and natural state, which contains all the necessary cofactors and dextro- form molecules.

Minerals work through many of the same principles as vitamins. Consider the chromium deficiency that most people in developed countries now experience because that mineral has been leached from our crop soils. In its natural state, chromium contains a glucose tolerance factor (GTF) that helps to protect us against diabetes. 

But, as the Organic Consumer’s Association has pointed out, GTF is not just one factor but a whole family of factors that contribute to health maintenance and prevention. “Almost all chromium products on the market are from chromium picolinate, which is a single isolated compound that is made in the laboratory,” wrote a scientist for the OCA in a March 2007 article on its Website titled “Natural or Whole Food Supplements vs. Isolated Chemical Compounds.” 

He pointed out that the compound is missing the crucial glucose tolerance factor, “So it doesn’t make sense to take the isolated synthetic chromium supplement. You are not receiving the health benefits. You might as well be throwing your money away.”

Our bodies perceive a synthetic supplement just as they would any other foreign chemical: as an invader and a threat to its survival. Our bodies respond by releasing immune-preserving cells such as leukocytes (white blood cells) to combat the enemy invasion. 

This extra activity distracts these cells from their crucial role of eliminating microbes (viruses and bacteria), spirochetes (such as those that result in Lyme disease), and mutagenic cells (such as those that can result in cancer). With fewer immune-preserving cells at work in our body to combat more deleterious cell activity, there is a greater probability for the emergence of illness and disease.

Synthetics have also been shown to be inferior to natural nutrients at removing toxins from body tissues and organs. Many essential vitamins and minerals are involved in detoxifying us and keeping our immune systems healthy. 

Vitamin C is one of the more crucial detoxifying agents. When researchers compared pharmaceutical vitamin C to naturally occurring vitamin C based on the ability to remove a common toxin called nitrosamines from the body (nitrosamines are a byproduct of, among other things, cooking processed meats), the synthetics failed to do an adequate job while the natural vitamin C reduced the toxins to much lower levels. 

That finding was reported by the Tufts University Health and Nutrition Letter in 1994. “Vitamins as they appear in nature,” the researchers said, “are in complex interrelationships with hundreds, even thousands of other biochemicals within the complex natural food matrix,” a synergy that helps to explain why they perform better than synthetics.

You may not want to believe it, but here is the ugly truth about most of the vitamin C sold in the world today: Rather than bolstering your body’s defenses against the common cold and other maladies, once in your body most vitamin C sold today becomes tantamount to just another toxin that your organs and immune system must flush out of your system.

Even if the vitamins you take are “natural” ones extracted from food, they will not be effective if they have been removed and isolated from the matrix of complimentary cofactors. 

Extracting a vitamin from its full-spectrum matrix eliminates the necessary cofactors that assist in the functioning of that nutrient. 

When you extract and isolate vitamin C (ascorbic acid) from an orange, you are also removing the bioflavonoids that are necessary for vitamin C’s complete vitamin activity. It is better to use a full-spectrum concentrate of the whole orange rather than to extract the ascorbic acid or other isolated vitamin C fractions or to take those factors separately.

Nutritionist Dr. Laura Mason-Scarborough, writing for the Holistic Pediatric Association Website, summarized the differences between natural and synthetic vitamin C this way: “What do you get if you purchase a synthesized bottle of vitamin C? You are buying ascorbic acid, a small part of vitamin C, manufactured from refined corn sugar. Ascorbic acid does have strong effects on the body but is more of a drug than a nutrient.”

For a complex matrix such as vitamin C to be effective, it has to be used as nature created it. Always use a full-spectrum food source supplement of vitamin C and other supplements to ensure that all the naturally occurring nutrient factors are available to your body.

Synthetic vitamin C offers only a fraction of the bioavailability and immune-enhancing benefits of naturally occurring sources. If you want a personal demonstration, try this little experiment on yourself the next time you feel you are coming down with a cold.

At the onset of symptoms, take the recommended doses of natural vitamin C extracted directly from Amla berries, an Asian fruit that is a great source for real vitamin C in its most concentrated form. Take daily notes on the effect your dosage has on your symptoms. Keep these notes for future reference because they will be useful in refreshing your memory.

If you continue periodically taking this form of natural vitamin C, you will probably notice that you have fewer colds and less severe symptoms, or no colds at all. But if you are continuing to take the supplement, next time you come down with a cold treat yourself with synthetic vitamin C. Once again, take daily notes on the progression of your symptoms.

Compare your record of experiences with the natural versus synthetic vitamins. People who have conducted this personal experiment invariably report a significant difference. Naturally occurring vitamin C, especially the form extracted from Amla berries, show a remarkable superiority to synthetics.

To package naturally occurring nutrient supplements such as vitamin C from Amla berries, a full-spectrum extract is made by removing the non-nutritive fibre and cellulose from the berries. 

Then the berries are filtered with water, ground up, and dried at low temperatures to concentrate the nutrients and their cofactors. No high-heat, freezing, or chemical techniques are used in this natural process.

By contrast, synthetics can start in a laboratory with corn sugar or coal tar as a base to create synthetic nutrients. Ascorbic acid, for instance, can be synthesized from this base using fermentation and chemical manipulations, depending on the manufacturer and its proprietary processes. The ascorbic acid is then marketed as vitamin C.

I have also reviewed a lot of dietary supplements, if you are interested, you might check them out.

Why Natural Is Superior To Synthetic Supplements?

We know that vitamins prevent disease and promote health, but what do we know about the actual quality of the vitamins we ingest? For more than 70 years we have been consuming synthetic vitamins in our supplements and our fortified foods in the belief that our health is being protected and improved. But what is the real story?

Here is the situation we confront with vitamin supplementation and food fortification. There are currently two categories in the family of vitamin and nutritional products with labelled potencies: synthetic and naturally occurring.

Nearly all vitamin supplements available today fall into the synthetic category. Some consist of 100-percent synthesized vitamins, and some are combination formulas containing one or more naturally occurring vitamin ingredients combined with synthetic vitamins. Naturally occurring vitamin supplements are composed only of naturally occurring food and botanicals. They contain no synthetic vitamins or nutrients whatsoever.

Synthetic vitamin supplements packaged as tablets, capsules, gel-caps, or powders comprise the majority of vitamin products found in natural-food stores, grocery stores, drug stores, and large retail outlets. Within this category, there are certain types and distinctions.

Type 1: In some vitamin supplement products, a natural< base is used and then synthetic vitamins or nutrients are added to that natural base. An example of a natural base could be acerola cherry or rosehip, and even a mixture of botanicals. Many vitamin C products that claim to be from acerola or some other fruit or food are usually spiked with synthetic ascorbic acid or ascorbates. Many multiple-vitamin products use a natural base spiked with multiple synthetic vitamins to get their labelled potencies.

Type 2: Some supplements are derived from especially “grown” materials (referred to as “food source” or “whole food” source) such as yeasts and algae. These products typically combine the yeast or algae and create other “mixtures” as a base to which synthetic vitamins are spiked or added. Manufacturers call these supplements “natural” because they are derived from yeast or algae—natural botanicals. However, they are not natural, because synthetic vitamins or nutrients have been added to the product. This is most often not mentioned on the product label and is hidden from consumers, most of whom, ironically, are reading labels to ensure the highest levels of nutrition. Instead, they fall prey to misleading and dishonest labelling information.

The manufacturer of a cultivated base that has been spiked with synthetics nutrients will supply its own as well as other supplement companies with this raw substance. They then use the raw substance to produce and market their own vitamins under different product names. 

The fact that this raw material contains a cultivated, so-called “natural” base enables the vitamin producers to make the claim on their label that they are derived from “natural sources” and contain the listed potencies from the “food source,” referring to the base. 

As you can now see, this deceptive practise misleads consumers into believing that they have a natural supplement. Most vitamin companies compete for customers with identical synthetic vitamin products made from compounds produced by the same few drug manufacturers. The vitamin companies differentiate their products with different names and fancy labels, each making claims of “high potency.” 

But the higher the potency of the synthetic vitamin or nutrient, the more likely it is to exhibit drug-like, toxic effects, the stress of which can actually lead to disease.

The majority of vitamin companies also purposely mislead the consumer by taking advantage of loopholes in labelling laws that allow manufacturers to use synthetic vitamins without full disclosure.

The truth is that the vitamin potencies for nearly all supplements are derived from synthetic vitamins.

The correct category of vitamin supplements is derived from naturally occurring full-spectrum food and botanical sources. These are truly natural-vitamin potency supplement products and can be identified by their designation “Naturally Occurring” or Naturally Occurring Standard (NOS).

Although vitamins from naturally occurring sources are of relatively low potency, they are actually much more effective at these lower potencies than synthetic vitamins for the simple reason that the body can easily assimilate their nutrients, and can do so without the toxic side effects of synthetic ingredients.

Just as natural vitamins from food are more effective than synthetic vitamins, so are natural vitamin supplements from whole-food sources. Low-potency vitamins from a full-spectrum, naturally occurring source of the vitamin will produce effective nutrient activity while positively affecting immune function and overall health.

How To Distinguish Natural From Synthetic Supplements?

A couple of dramatic methods for showing the difference between a natural vitamin and a synthetic vitamin are the use of chromatograms and energy photographs. 

Chromatograms are made by mixing water with the dry vitamin material and then spreading it on a sheet of absorbent paper through a blotting process to show the symmetrical designs of natural substances versus the less symmetrical designs of synthetic substances. 

Energy photographs or videos designed to measure the electromagnetic field of a substance are made by taking any object and passing an electrical current through it while using an exposure photographic technique that produces an image of the electrical current both inside and around the object. This image is the closest measure we have for “seeing” what scientists call an electromagnetic field.

In the last 25 years, we have discovered that sub-particles occupy the radius of minerals and trace minerals and act as conduits to and from larger nutrients. Together they fulfil the task of complete absorption and proper function. When processing or cooking foods and whole-food supplements, these sub-particles are destroyed, thereby significantly reducing both the potency and function of the remaining molecule. The foods and supplements are essentially stripped of their nutritive value, rendering them dead and denatured.

This is a cutting-edge scientific way to illustrate the difference between whole and synthetic vitamins. It can be an eye-opening experience for those who believe in the magnificence and symmetry of nature and in the life force surrounding all living organisms, including living foods. There are forces in nature that are necessary for life but cannot be re-created in a lab. 

The study of these forces, to this day, remains almost exclusively the domain of physical science and physicists rather than that of the biological sciences (doctors, nutritionists, chemists, and biologists.) Until this gap between the sciences is bridged, food science will continue to lag behind in its application of this fundamental universal principle of the natural world.

Fortunately, a growing number of professionals from the biological community are bridging this gap and making important contributions in the area of health sciences. In our collective opinion, nothing could have more significance or as great an impact on the health of the planet and its people than the understanding and adoption of whole-food, plant-based nutrition. For this to happen, however, we must stand together as a global community and insist on the universal application of truly natural food principles. Truly natural is always better when it comes to nutrition.

It is quite easy to see the difference in vital energy that each material offers.

For example, a true and natural vitamin C is a complex matrix of naturally occurring compounds derived from fruit or some other food that not only contains the compound ascorbic acid but also contains other necessary components of the vitamin C matrix such as flavonoids like hesperidin or rutin, tannins, and other factors, some of which may still be unknown.

Ascorbic acid (C6H806) is not vitamin C. It is a chemical fraction—an isolated part—of what could be a real (Naturally Occurring Standard—NOS) vitamin C. 

In this form, it is always and only synthetic. In studies carried out on food-based vitamin C, research has concluded that it acts very differently than synthetic vitamin C. 

The food-based C is more slowly absorbed and has higher bioavailability. One long-term study by J.A. Vinson, unpublished but titled “Bioavailability of Vitamin C” in 1991, showed the food-based citrus extract vitamin C to be up to 12 times more bioavailable than ascorbic acid.

This means that more of the vitamin is absorbed into the plasma, and it is retained substantially longer with less excreted in the urine. Therefore, it is of higher overall value to our bodies.

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