Jayney's Blog

What’s the difference between synthetic and plant-based vitamins and supplements… and should we care?

Vitamins and other nutrients are absolutely essential to our well-being and ideally we should get these from our diet – or in the case of vitamin D, from sun exposure. 

It is argued that it is not possible for us to obtain all the nutrients that we need from food alone – even if it is the highest quality fresh food – due to intensive farming which has stripped the soil that our foods are grown in of many important, even vital, nutrients.  This is a highly contentious issue and many expert sources provide conflicting evidence.  So, having said this, many people like to try to supplement their diet with nutrients that they believe could be missing out. 

It goes without saying that vitamin deficiencies lead to, or are associated with, a wide range of health problems.  Some of these have been recognised for hundreds of years e.g. scurvy (lack of vitamin C) and rickets (lack of vitamin D) right through to more modern-day problems, including anorexia, obesity, organ malfunction, confusion, depression and fatigue.  So, it is very important to ensure that you are actually getting everything you need to function optimally and enjoy glowing good health and vitality.  To do this, you need to find a way of assessing your current nutrient status and then, if it transpires that you are lacking in certain nutrients, you’ll need to know how to intelligently supplement your diet.  Before we come onto exactly how to do this, let’s look at the types of supplement available – so that you’ll be fully aware of what to choose – and what to avoid.

The sad fact is that not all vitamins are created equal, and most that are commonly available to us are actually synthetic. 

So, what is a “synthetic” vitamin? Many vitamin and mineral supplements are manufactured synthetically from chemicals that do not come straight from natural sources. Under a microscope, they may look identical to natural vitamins and they may even vaguely mimic the way natural vitamins function in our bodies. While seeming to be identical to natural vitamins, many synthetic versions are ‘isolates’ – meaning that they lack the transporters and co-factors associated with the naturally occurring vitamins. Isolated vitamins cannot be used or recognised by the body in the same way as the natural version.

In their natural form, vitamins always appear ‘packaged’ in plant materials alongside and array of phytochemicals, enzymes and minerals that control the way the body recognises, metabolises and uses them to make what it needs.  When these are turned into products, we call these ‘food state supplements’, because our body recognises these vitamins with their accompanying host of co-factors as legitimately nutritious foods.  We also call these supplements ‘bioavailable’ – as our body can readily use these natural, whole supplements.

What’s the Big Deal About Synthetic Vitamins?

More than 95% of all the vitamin supplements sold today fall in to the synthetic category.

Isolated synthetic vitamins can’t always be used by the body, and can be stored until you obtain other nutrients required to use them effectively or manufacture these other co-factors in your own body.  Alternatively, they can simply be excreted – making very expensive pee. Of great concern is that when synthetic vitamins lack necessary trace minerals and they have to use you body’s own mineral reserves which can lead to dangerous mineral deficiencies.

We might not always get what we’re expecting from synthetics and in fact, we might get a great deal more than we are bargaining for.  Just one example of this is the synthetic form of vitamin E.  (Actually a by-product of the chemical industry.) This is referred to as the ‘dl-’ form. The dl- form is a combination of the d-form (which is the naturally occurring form) and the l-form.   The problem here is that our body doesn’t actually use the l-form. (This applies only to vitamins and not amino acids or sugars.) Fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K) in their synthetic form are especially dangerous because they can build up in your fatty tissues and cause toxicity. One of the reasons that the synthetic form is more dangerous is because you get a highly concentrated serving of the vitamin rather than the amount that you would get from a food-based form.

Buyer beware: How do I know if the vitamins I’m buying are synthetic or natural?

The Organic Consumers Association in the USA has published a helpful ingredient chart that is relevant to UK consumers too, which is very useful in identifying natural vs. synthetic vitamins.

Common Synthetic Vitamins to Avoid:

Look for clues on your vitamin’s label that offer insight into the actual form of the vitamin.

  • Vitamin A: Retinyl Palmitate
  • Vitamin B1 (Thiamine): Thiamine Mononitrate, Thiamine Hydrochloride
  • Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin): Riboflavin
  • Pantothenic Acid: Calcium D-Pantothenate
  • Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine): Pyridoxine Hydrochloride
  • Vitamin B12: Cobalamin
  • PABA (Para-aminobenzoic Acid): Aminobenzoic Acid
  • Folic Acid: Pteroylglutamic Acid
  • Choline: Choline Chloride, Choline Bitartrate
  • Biotin: d-Biotin
  • Vitamin C (Ascorbic Acid): Ascorbic Acid
  • Vitamin D: Irradiated Ergosteral, Calciferol
  • Vitamin E: dl-alpha tocopherol, dl-alpha tocopherol acetate or succinate

Remember: The “dl” form of any vitamin is synthetic.

Other Toxic Ingredients to Avoid In Supplements

  • Magnesium stearate (or stearic acid)
  • Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) disguised as “natural flavors”
  • Carnauba wax is used in car wax and shoe polish
  • Titanium dioxide is a carcinogen


My position is – Get tested!  I do not advocate taking a ‘scatter-gun’ approach to supplementation.  As a complementary medical practitioner, I utilise an ‘evidence-based’ approach to supporting my patients’ wellbeing.  This means that I would far rather they have a variety of tests to show what is exactly what is missing from their diet – so that we can accurately supplement with the correct types and doses of carefully chosen plant-based, bio-available products which will be recognised by the body as ‘food’ and can therefore be utilised to help my patients to regain their health.  Let’s not forget that we cannot be truly healthy and attain our highest potential as human beings unless we are as fit and well as possible; physically, emotionally, mentally and even spiritually. Accurate, intelligent supplementation – but only when it is demonstrably warranted – can play an extremely valuable role in achieving and maintaining optimal health on all levels. Find your nearest qualified nutritionist on The Complementary Medical Association (CMA) site: The-CMA.org.uk – or train as a Lifestyle Medicine Consultant – recognised the British Society of Lifestyle Medicine (BSLM) at BSLM.info, so that you can help guide others through the optimal wellbeing maze.

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3 months ago

Very interesting

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