To Synthesize or Not to Synthesize – “Nature-Identical” Nutrients


Does the word "synthesize" kindle thoughts of things that are unnatural?

The human body synthesizes about 10 billion cells a second, also synthesizing energy billions of times a second, for a total of around 10 trillion synthetic activities a day.

The word synthesis has been getting a bad rap. It's more a matter of what is synthesized.

If a synthetic molecule never occurred in nature, like a great number of drugs or the “l” in the dl-alpha tocopherol form of vitamin E, and it causes side effects or some kind of toxicity, its effect on overall health is of concern.

But what about isolated nutrients that are synthesized to be “nature-identical,” which are made in a laboratory as perfect replicas of the same nutrient found in foods that also duplicate its activities in the body?

Consuming supplemental “natural-identical” vitamin C or consuming vitamin C-rich oranges will cure lethal scurvy, a vitamin C deficiency disease.

Indeed, a comprehensive 2013 20-page review of studies that have compared the bioavailability of synthetic or food-derived vitamin C stated, “…all steady state comparative bioavailability studies in humans have shown no differences between synthetic and natural vitamin C, regardless of the subject population, study design or intervention used.”[1]

Thousands of studies confirm that “nature-identical” nutrients duplicate the activity of the nutrient in food, or even improve on its activity when higher nutrient potency is confirmed to produce optimal results.[2]

Absorption Advantage
Surprisingly, most nutrients in food do not absorb as well as “nature-identical” isolated nutrients, because they are bound in the food and digestion, never being perfect, must break the bond to glean the nutrient, so that it can be absorbed through the intestinal lining, as only isolated vitamins and minerals are absorbed through the intestinal lining and into the bloodstream.[3]

Ascorbic Acid: “To C” or “Not to C"
The majority of supplemental vitamin C is synthesized from starch through laboratory processes involving fermentation, that basically mimic vitamin C biosynthesis in animals and plants that make their own vitamin C.[4] [5]   

The laboratory processes, like the biosynthetic processes in plants and animals that make their own vitamin C, renders pure ascorbic acid, the same molecule bio-synthesized and found in oranges. The nutrient is so pure that polymerase chain reaction (PCR) DNA testing of the laboratory-made ascorbic acid finds no hint of its starch source, no source material DNA.

It’s simply ascorbic acid.

“Natural-Identical” Vitamin C Causes No Toxicity
Taking that ascorbic acid will not only cure scurvy, but it will support and improve dozens of healthy body functions, without causing any cellular toxicity, according to a comprehensive analysis of the potential for vitamin C toxicity published by long-time nutritional researcher, Dr. Carol S. Johnston, [6] Professor and Associate Director of the Nutrition Program in the School of Nutrition and Health Promotion at Arizona State University.

Cost, Bioavailability and Number of Tablets
Three critical consumer issues are the cost of a nutrient, its bioavailability and the amount of tablet space it takes up. “Natural-identical” isolated nutrients cost between 8 and 14 times less than nutrients derived directly from foods. They can require ¼ to 1/8th as much tablet space because they are not accompanied by food materials. “Nature-identical” isolated vitamins can be much more effective, because they are concentrated, so potencies proven to be effective by published studies, can fit in much less tablet space.

Also worth considering, a pure isolated nutrient that is extracted from plants is no more “natural” than a “nature-identical” synthesized nutrient since it has been made by chemists who grind, mix, extract, purify and crystalize the vitamin C, but the raw material cost is greater, which increases the retail price.

While we would like to believe that food materials that are found with vitamin C in plants, such bioflavonoids, improve the absorption and bioavailability of vitamin C, “Results from the 10 clinical studies comparing the absorption of vitamin C alone or vitamin C in flavonoid-containing foods showed no appreciable difference in bioavailability.”[7]

Bioflavonoids, vitamin C’s “cousins,” have their own complementary antioxidant benefits inside the body. However, they do not improve the bioavailability of vitamin C.

So eat fruits and vegetables that contain bioflavonoids, such as citrus, parsley, onions, blueberries and other berries and cacao, too, or take bioflavonoid supplements. But don’t expect them to increase vitamin C absorption.

Optimal Potencies Equal Optimal Effects
As mentioned, a favorable aspect of “nature-identical” nutrients is that they are concentrated, so that one can get optimal nutrient potencies in fewer tablets for less cost, and it is potency that has been shown in over 30,000 studies to produce optimal health effects.1

While enthusiasts for natural foods, including myself, would prefer to get all the vitamin C we need from food, I find that, even eating very consciously, if I don’t take 6,000 mg of daily supplemental vitamin C, which would require eating about 90 oranges, my allergies wake up. Getting all the vitamin C I need from food borders on the impossible, in part because my job doesn’t allow me to forage for organic food all day. Even if that were possible, getting all the nutrients we need from organic food has become a difficult job.

Our Devitalized Food Supply    
Indeed, in Magnificent Magnesium, Dennis Goodman, M.D. notes, “Compared with food that was grown fifty years ago, food today – even food that is grown organically – contains greatly reduced levels of vital nutrients…” He goes on, “American cropland has been depleted of 85 percent of its mineral content compared with soil from a century ago.”[8] Further, University of Texas at Austin researchers looked at over forty vegetables, along with melons and strawberries and found that the nutrient content averaged 38% higher in 1950 than in 1999.[9]                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

Considering depleted topsoil, ideally, people would eat 10 or more daily servings of organic vegetables, fruits, nuts and other natural foods. If we did, maybe we wouldn’t find that over 90% of Americans are deficient in multiple essential nutrients,[10] which results in accelerated aging[11] and relatively shorter lifespans.[12] In lieu of eating a “perfect” diet, we take dietary supplements to make up the nutrient gap, be healthier and hopefully live a healthier, longer lifespan.

Nutrition in A Foraging Diet
In 1985, a seminal study, called Paleolithic Nutrition,[13] which looked at what our ancestors consumed during the last 100,000 years, concluded that a foraging diet yielded about 1,600 mg. of calcium a day, which is about a 1,000 mg. more than average American women get from food. Since it takes about 40,000 years for genes to change, we are likely genetically programmed to be healthier when we get about 1,600 mg of calcium a day.

Food, of course, would be the best source.

We can get 1,600 mg of calcium by eating lots of green vegetables, such as four pounds of broccoli or two pounds of kale a day or the equivalent in other green vegetables, however, we aren’t foraging all day.

Supporting Bone Health
Since most people can’t or won’t eat this much in dark green leafy vegetables, taking a high-potency isolated calcium supplement, while not being as desirable as getting calcium from food, actually reversed “normal” postmenopausal bone loss in an elegant study of postmenopausal American women.[14]

This two-year placebo-controlled study showed that postmenopausal women lost 3% of their bone mineral density when they consumed an average of 683 mg. of calcium a day from food, a typical amount for average American women.

A second group in the study lost less bone, only 1½% when they added four glasses of milk per day, to yield 1085 mg. of daily calcium. So, we see a trend – more calcium equals less bone loss.

A third group not only didn’t lose bone but gained 3% of their total bone mineral density when they added a 1,000 mg calcium supplement to the 683 mg. of their dietary calcium, which put them in the 1,600 mg a day range that appears to be what we are genetically programmed to get, according to the data in Paleolithic Nutrition.

Another study that looked at how much vitamin C a foraging diet would provide found 2,300 mg a day to be a credible amount.[15] Yet, the average American gets about 300 mg. a day from food. Is a lifelong deficiency of vitamin C’s antioxidant effect responsible for some types of accelerated aging? Studies show that taking higher potencies of vitamin C, in general, produces more optimal health effects. Apparently, most people need to take supplemental “natural-identical” vitamin C to duplicate a foraging diet’s vitamin C intake.

Bone Health and Vitamin C
One study found that American post-menopausal women who consumed an average of 113 mg. of vitamin C from food or 407 mg. from food and vitamin C supplements lost bone.[16]

A three-year study showed that postmenopausal women that took between 1,000 or more of daily “nature-identical” vitamin C experienced about 5% better bone mineral density than women that took 500 mg. of vitamin C or only got vitamin C from their food.[17] Supplemental vitamin C yielded better bone health in higher potencies.

Vitamin C stimulates the production of bone collagen,[18] which gives bone its flexibility and ability to absorb impact. A study that looked at vitamin C intake and bone fractures said, “Subjects in the highest category of supplemental vitamin C intake had significantly fewer hip fractures…and non-vertebral fractures…compared to non-supplement users.[19]

Supplemental “nature-identical” nutrients also increase the chances of the birth of more healthy, full-term babies.

Improved Fertility
Supplemental vitamin C, at 500 mg a day, was shown to increase the rate of pregnancies by 44% for woman receiving infertility treatment.[20] Vitamin C’s antioxidant effect protects eggs from free radicals that destroy egg DNA,[21] as also can happen with antioxidants protecting sperm.[22] [23] [24]   

Pregnancy and Full-Term Delivery
There’s a 74% increased chance of preterm delivery and an 82% increased chance of anemia when a pregnant woman is deficient in vitamin A (retinol, not beta carotene).[25]

Important to note, vitamin A is retinol. Beta carotene is not vitamin A. It is a poorly converting precursor to retinol.

About half of us have two genetic defects that prevent beta carotene from converting into vitamin A in the body.[26] For the rest of us conversion can be as poor as 29 to 1.[27] [28] [29] [30] Therefore, we cannot rely on beta carotene for our vitamin A needs.

Another important note is how much vitamin A pregnant women require for the healthiest full-term pregnancy, and how much is safe for pregnancy, since vegans will only get true retinol vitamin A from “nature-identical” supplements.

A concern raised about vitamin A versus beta carotene is that vitamin A might cause birth defects, but it turns out that an optimal amount of vitamin A is “much more likely” to reduce the risk of birth defects.

The World Health Organization (WHO) publication, “Safe vitamin A dosage during pregnancy and lactation” says, “Recent studies strongly suggest that periconceptional supplements of vitamin A that are close to, but less than 10,000 IU/day, and that are given as a component of a multivitamin, are much more likely to be associated with reduced, rather than increased, risk of malformations [birth defects].[31]

WHO further quotes a report that says that the amount of vitamin A necessary to produce birth defects “…does not occur at vitamin A dosage levels of 10,000-15,000 IU…but only at levels above 30,000 IU.“[32]

So to be sure we’re getting all the vitamin A we need, unless we’re eating a lot of retinol-rich animal fats, we should supplement with an optimal potency of real retinol vitamin A, especially when striving for the healthiest, full-term pregnancy.

We can get natural vitamin A from cod liver oil and other animal fats, but those of us that are vegans avoid animal fats, as do some vegetarians. In the USA about 54% of us are deficient in vitamin A,[33] so it is prudent to take supplemental vitamin A for the health of the eyes, lungs, skin, bones and immune system and, of course, healthy full-term pregnancy.[34]

Supplemental vitamin A that isn’t derived from animal fats can be synthesized from citral, which is found abundantly in the oils of lemon myrtle, lemongrass, lemon tea-tree May chang and similar lemony botanicals.[35]

Vitamin K2 (MK-7) – Heart and Bone Health
The Rotterdam study showed that people that consumed the most vitamin K2 (MK-7) from their diets experienced significantly better cardiovascular health and longer lifespans than people that consumed the least vitamin K2 (MK-7).[36]

Since over 95% of us are deficient in vitamin K2[37] [38] taking a vitamin K2 supplement could improve the cardiovascular health and bone health of millions of people.

Supplemental vitamin K2 (MK-7) can be derived from natto, a fermented soy product but more recently NattoPharma of Norway created MenaQ7™, a vitamin K2 (MK-7) that derived from fermented chickpeas for those that want to avoid products derived from soy. 

Another interesting nature-identical synthetic ingredient just introduced to the market is NattoPharma’s MenaQ7™ PURE, “nature-identical” variety, recognized at this year’s Engredea/Natural Products Expo as the 2015 Best Functional Ingredient.

MenaQ7 PURE is an all-trans ingredient that is completely free of cis-isomers (a biologically inactive form of menaquinone isomers). The trans-form fits perfectly into the 3D structure of the carboxylase enzyme, enabling activation of the vitamin K-dependent proteins important for maintaining strong bones and cardiovascular health, namely ostecalcin and matrix Gla protein (MGP), respectively.

NattoPharma’s patent-pending synthetic process produces an unprecedentedly pure vitamin K2 (MK-7) molecule that provides a much more desirable outcome for stability, efficacy, safety and cost. 

Note: There are vitamin K2 (MK-7) products on the market that are not all-trans and contain cis-isomers (not claimed) and contaminants that are not disclosed on labels. With “nature-identical” MenaQ7 PURE, customers are getting all the actives and no cis-isomers, and it is free from unwanted constituents.

Summary: Nature-identical synthesized nutrients are perfect replicas of the same nutrients found in food, which duplicate the activities of food vitamins in the body.  These nutrients offer the advantages of purity with generally greater absorption, while requiring less tablet space at a significantly lower cost. Further, the economy of space they provide allows science-based optimal potencies to be provided in fewer tablets.

DEBATE: Also see Nature-Identical vs. Food-Based Nutrients – What’s the Difference?

About Michael K. Mooney
Because of several health problems as a youth, Michael found his life’s calling when “health foods” and dietary supplements began to improve his health at age 14, in 1967, in Omaha, Nebraska.

Michael has been mentored by two geniuses, the first being his biochemist father, Patrick, an inventor, whose father invented laundry detergent.

Because of their passion for the scientific foundation and health-promoting effects of dietary supplements Patrick and Michael started a 300+ member non-profit vitamin research co-op in San Francisco in 1973. After four years the co-op became SuperNutrition, a dietary supplement company, to fund their research by selling Patrick’s formulas in “health food” stores.

SuperNutrition science-based nutritional formulas have been gluten-free and hypoallergenic since 1977, as well as being free from GMO’s, ever since GMOs were introduced into America’s food supply in 1994.

In helping HIV+ friends learn about alternative health techniques that helped them stay alive in the early days of AIDS, Michael co-authored Built To Survive, a 174-page progressive health guide with 407 medical journal references for HIV+ people and their doctors. Built To Survive also has applications for anti-aging health techniques.

The University of Illinois AIDS Book Review Journal said, "It is a book for the individual, but also a highly recommended book for all medical, academic and public libraries."

Having lectured hundreds of times and been interviewed on ABC-TV, NBC-TV, FOX-TV, The Discovery Channel and in Sports Illustrated, as well as dozens of other  media, Michael’s life passion is to write about the science behind nutritional breakthroughs to make it easily understood by the public. In this regard, Michael continues to create all SuperNutrition science reviews.

Awards Include:
The Citizens for Health “Outstanding Health Freedom Activist Award” for his work in helping to pass the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994, which stopped the FDA from making vitamins into prescription items, while establishing a reasonable framework for regulating dietary supplements.

Among 11 other awards, Michael’s favorite was being inducted into the “Hall of Legends” of the Natural Products Industry, March 6, 2015.

Posted on WholeFoods Magazine Online, May 18, 2015




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[24] Nadiarzadeh A et al. Effect of Coenzyme Q10 supplementation on antioxidant enzymes activity and oxidative stress of seminal plasma: a double-blind randomised clinical trial. Andrologia. 2014 Mar;46(2):177-83.

[25] Radhika, MS et al. Effects of vitamin A deficiency during pregnancy on maternal and child health. BJOG. 2002 Jun;109(6):689-93.

[26] Leung WC et al. Two common single nucleotide polymorphisms in the gene encoding beta-carotene 15,15'-monoxygenase alter beta-carotene metabolism in female volunteers. FASEB J. 2009 Apr;23(4):1041-53.

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[28] Solomons NW. Plant sources of provitamin A and human nutriture: How much is still too little? Nutr Rev. 1999 Nov;57(11):350-361.

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[30] Brubacher GB, et al. The vitamin A activity of beta-carotene. Int J Vit Nutr Res. 1985;55(1):5-15.

[31] Safe vitamin A dosage during pregnancy and lactation. WHO/NUT/98.4:16.

[32] Safe vitamin A dosage during pregnancy and lactation. WHO/NUT/98.4:18.

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[37] Theuwissen E et al. Vitamin K status in healthy volunteers. Food Funct. 2014 Feb;5(2):229-34.