The Truth About Vitamins in Nutritional Supplements
Robert Thiel, Ph.D., Naturopath
Abstract: Even though natural health professionals agree that humans should not try to consume petroleum derivatives or hydrogenated sugars, most seem to overlook this fact when vitamin supplementation is involved. This paper explains some of the biochemical reasons that food vitamins are superior for humans. It also explains what substances are commonly used to make vitamins in supplements. Furthermore, it explains some of the advantages of food vitamins over the non-food vitamins that are commonly available.
For decades the ‘natural’ health industry has been touting thousands of vitamin supplements. The truth is that most vitamins in supplements are made or processed with petroleum derivatives or hydrogenated sugars [1-5]. Even though they are often called natural, most non-food vitamins are isolated substances which are crystalline in structure . Vitamins naturally in food are not crystalline and never isolated. Vitamins found in any real food are chemically and structurally different from those commonly found in ‘natural vitamin’ formulas. Since they are different, naturopaths should consider non-food vitamins as vitamin analogues (imitations) and not actually vitamins.
The standards of naturopathy agreed to in 1947 (at the Golden Jubilee Congress) included the statements, “Naturopathy does not make use of synthetic or inorganic vitamins…Naturopathy makes use of the healing properties of…natural foods, organic vitamins” . Even back in the 1940s, professionals interested in natural health recognized the value of food, over non-food, vitamins. Also, it should be mentioned that naturopathic definition of organic back then was similar to the official US government definition today–why does this need to be stated? Because one pseudo-naturopath once told this researcher that a particular brand of synthetic vitamins contained “organic vitamins”, because a sales representative had told him so. Sadly, that sales representative either intentionally gave out false information or gave out misleading information–misleading because by its ‘scientific’ definition, the term ‘organic’ can mean that it is a carbon containing substance, hence by that definition all petroleum derivatives (hydro-carbons) are organic. But false, because those type of vitamins are not organic from the true naturopathic, or even the U.S. government’s, perspective.
Officially, according to mainstream science, “Vitamins are organic substances that are essential in small amounts for the health, growth, reproduction, and maintenance of one or more animal species, which must be included in the diet since they cannot be synthesized at all or in sufficient quantity in the body. Each vitamin performs a specific function; hence one cannot replace another. Vitamins originate primarily in plant tissues” . Isolated non-food ‘vitamins’ (often called ‘natural’ or USP or pharmaceutical grade) are not naturally “included in the diet”, do not necessarily “originate primarily in plant tissues”, and cannot fully replace all natural vitamin activities. As a natural health professional, you should be able to read and interpret, even misleading supplement labels. For those who are unsure, hopefully this article will provide sufficient information to determine if vitamin tablets are food or imitations.
What is Your Vitamin Really?
Most vitamins in supplements are petroleum extracts, coal tar derivatives, and chemically processed sugar (plus sometimes industrially processed fish oils), with other acids and industrial chemicals (such as formaldehyde) used to process them [1-5]. Synthetic vitamins were originally developed because they cost less . Assuming the non-food product does not contain fish oils, most synthetic, petroleum-derived, supplements will call their products ‘vegetarian’, not because they are from plants, but because they are not from animals. Most vitamins in vitamin supplements made from food are in foods such as acerola cherries, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, lemons, limes, nutritional yeast, oranges, and rice bran (some companies also use animal products).
Table 1. Composition of Food and Non-Food Vitamins [1-10]
Vitamin Food Nutrient* ‘Natural’ Vitamin Analogue & Some Process Chemicals
Vitamin A/Betacarotene Carrots Methanol, benzene, petroleum esters; acetylene; refined oils
Vitamin B-1 Nutritional yeast, rice bran
Coal tar derivatives, hydrochloric acid; acetonitrole with ammonia
Vitamin B-2 Nutritional yeast, rice bran Synthetically produced with 2N acetic acid
Vitamin B-3 Nutritional yeast, rice bran Coal tar derivatives, 3-cyanopyridine; ammonia and acid
Vitamin B-5 Nutritional yeast, rice bran Condensing isobutyraldehyde with formaldehyde
Vitamin B-6 Nutritional yeast, rice bran Petroleum ester & hydrochloric acid with formaldehyde
Vitamin B-8 Rice
Phytin hydrolyzed with calcium hydroxide and sulfuric acid
Vitamin B-9 Broccoli, rice bran Processed with petroleum derivatives and acids; acetylene
Vitamin B-12 Nutritional yeast Cobalamins reacted with cyanide
Vitamin ‘B-x’ PABA Nutritional yeast Coal tar oxidized with nitric acid (from ammonia)
Choline Nutritional yeast, rice bran Ethylene and ammonia with HCL or tartaric acid
Vitamin C Acerola cherries, citrus fruits Hydrogenated sugar processed with acetone
Vitamin D Nutritional yeast Irradiated animal fat/cattle brains or solvently extracted
Vitamin E Rice, vegetable oils Trimethylhydroquinone with isophytol; refined oils
Vitamin H Nutritional yeast, rice bran Biosynthetically produced
Vitamin K Cabbage Coal tar derivative; produced with p-allelic-nickel
* Note: Although some companies use liver extracts as a source for vitamins A and/or D, and at least one company has a herring oil product supplying some vitamin E, no company this researcher is aware of whose products are made out of 100% food use animal products in any of their multiple vitamins. Some companies also use brewer’s yeast which is inferior to nutritional yeast in many ways (including the fact that it has not had the cell wall enzymatically processed to reduce possible sensitivities).
Read The Label to See the Chemical Differences!
Although many doctors have been taught that food and non-food vitamins have the same chemical composition, this is simply untrue for most vitamins. As shown in table 2, the chemical forms of food and synthetic nutrients are normally different. Health professionals need to understand that since there is no mandated definition of the term ‘natural’; just seeing that term on a label does not mean that the supplement contains only natural food substances. One of the best ways to tell whether or not a vitamin supplement contains natural vitamins as found in food is to know the chemical differences between food and non-food vitamins (sometimes called USP vitamins). Because they are not normally in the same chemical form as vitamins found in foods, non-food vitamins should be considered by natural health professionals as vitamin analogues (artificial imitations), and not actually as true vitamins for humans.
Table 2. Chemical Form of Food and Non-Food Vitamins [1-10]
Primary Chemical Vitamin Form in Food Vitamin Analogue Chemical Form (Often Called Natural*)
Vitamin A/Betacarotene; retinyl esters; mixed carotenoids Vitamin A acetate; vitamin A palmitate; betacarotene (isolated)
Vitamin B-1; thiamin pyrophosphate (food) Thiamin mononitrate; thiamin hydrochloride; thiamin HCL
Vitamin B-2; riboflavin, multiple forms (food) Riboflavin (isolated); USP vitamin B2
Vitamin B-3; niacinamide (food) Niacin (isolated); niacinamide (isolated)
Vitamin B-5; pantothenate (food) Pantothenic acid; calcium pantothenate; panthenol
Vitamin B-6; 5’0 (beta-D) pyridoxine Pyridoxine hydrochloride; pyridoxine HCL
Vitamin B-9; folate Folic acid
Vitamin B-12; methylcobalamin; deoxyadenosylcobalamin Cyanocobalamin; hydroxycobalamin
Choline (food); phosphatidyl choline (food) Choline chloride; choline bitartrate
Vitamin C; ascorbate (food); dehydroascorbate
Ascorbic acid; most mineral ascorbates (i.e. sodium
Vitamin D; mixed forms, primarily D3 (food) Vitamin D1 (isolated); Vitamin D2 (isolated); Vitamin D3 (isolated) ; Vitamin D4; ergosterol (isolated); cholecalciferol (isolated); lumisterol
Vitamin E; RRR-alpha-tocopherol (food)
Vitamin E acetate; Mixed tocopherols; all-rac-alpha-tocopherol; d-l–alpha-tocopherol; d-alpha-tocopherol (isolated); dl-alpha-tocopheryl acetate; all acetate forms
Vitamin H; biotin All non-yeast or non-rice vegetarian biotin forms
Vitamin K; phylloquinone (food)
Vitamin K3; menadione; phytonadione; naphthoquinone; dihydro-vitamin K1
* Note: This list is not complete and new analogues are being developed all the time. Also the term “(isolated)” means that if the word “food” is not near the name of the substance, it is probably an isolate (normally crystalline in structure) and is not the same as the true vitamin found in food.
Read the label of any supplement to see if the product is truly 100% food. If even one USP vitamin analogue is listed, then the entire product is probably not food (normally it will be less than 5% food). Vitamin analogues are cheap (or not so cheap) imitations of vitamins found in foods.
Beware of any supplement label that says that its vitamins are vegetarian and contain no yeast. This researcher is unaware of any frequently used vegetarian non-yeast way to produce vitamin D or many of the B vitamins, therefore, if a label states that the product “contains no yeast” then in pretty much all cases, this demonstrates that the product is synthetic or contains items so isolated that they should not be considered to be food.
Saccharomyces cerevisiae (the primary yeast used in baking and brewing) is beneficial to humans and can help combat various infections , including according to the German E monograph Candida albicans. In the text, Medical Mycology John Rippon (Ph.D., Mycology, University of Chicago) wrote, “There are over 500 known species of yeast, all distinctly different. And although the so-called bad yeasts do exist, the controversy in the natural foods industry regarding yeast related to health problems which is causing many health-conscious people to eliminate all yeast products from their diet is ridiculous.? It should also be noted, that W. Crook, M.D., perhaps the nation’s best known expert on Candida albicans, wrote, “yeasty foods don’t encourage candida growth…Eating a yeast-containing food does not make candida organisms multiply” . Some people, however, are allergic to the cell-wall of yeast  and concerned supplement companies which have nutrient-containing yeast normally have had the cell-wall enzymatically processed to reduce even this unlikely occurrence.
Food Vitamins are Superior to Non-Food Vitamins
Although many mainstream health professionals believe, “The body cannot tell whether a vitamin in the bloodstream came from an organically grown cantaloupe or from a chemist’s laboratory” , this belief is quite misleading for several reasons. First it seems to assume that the process of getting the amount of the vitamin into the bloodstream is the same (which is frequently not the case [3-10]). Secondly, scientists understand that particle size is an important factor in nutrient absorption even though particle size is not detected by chemical assessment. Thirdly, scientists also understand that, “The food factors that influence the absorption of nutrients relate not only to the nature of the nutrients themselves, but also their interaction with each other and with the nonabsorbable components of food” . Fourthly, “the physiochemical form of a nutrient is a major factor in bioavailability” (and food and non-food vitamins are not normally in the same form) . Fifthly, most non-food vitamins are crystalline in structure .
Published scientific research has concluded, “natural vitamins are nutritionally superior to synthetic ones” .
Food vitamins are in the physiochemical forms which the body recognizes, generally are not crystalline in structure, contain food factors that affect bioavailability, and appear to have smaller particle sizes (see illustrations in table 3). This does not mean that non-food vitamins do not have any value (they clearly do), but it is important to understand that natural food complex vitamins have actually been shown to be better than isolated, non-food, vitamins (see table 4).