Natural Versus Synthetic

It seems an easy choice: “Natural” conjures up an image of a nutrient gently coaxed from fresh vegetables. Synthetic, on the other hand, brings to mind an image of a bubbling stew of chemicals.


But the reality of the situation may surprise you. “Your body doesn’t know the difference between a natural and a synthetic vitamin, “says Howerde E. Sauberlich, professor of nutrition at the University of Alabama.

And while your mind may still yearn for natural over synthetic, it’s tough to say exactly what is natural. Even when a vitamin comes from a plant, extracting that vitamin from the plant often requires the use of chemical solvents-not really a “natural” process. Sometimes manufacturing a supplement combines natural and synthetic methods: The nutrient is made by yeast or bacteria in a lab.

The world natural may also mean that only a small percentage of the ingredients are natural. You could find a bottle of vitamin C, for example, labelled “natural” because part of the ingredients comes from rose hips, yet most of the contents could be synthetic.

One exception: The natural form of vitamin E (called d-alpha-tocopherol or d-alpha-tocopheryl acetate) is about one-third more potent than the synthetic form (dl-alpha-tocopheryl acetate). Both forms are effective, but you have to take more of the synthetic form.

Minerals, of course, most often come from their natural sources, so it’s no surprise that they’re labelled “natural”. For two minerals, however, you may fare better by seeking out labels that say “organic”. The organic forms of the minerals selenium and chromium (made from yeast) may be better absorbed by the body.

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