Natural vs. Synthetic vs. "Whole"

Synthetic or Natural? 
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What’s the Difference Between Natural and Synthetic Vitamins?

Nobody really likes what I have to say on this subject.

And, to be fair, the answer is an inherently awkward one.

Most vitamin products, even those sold in health food stores or by distributors, contain synthetic vitamin powders. There are only a few manufacturers of vitamin powders, and they are almost always large pharmaceutical companies.  Generally,

a)  Laboratory-made vitamins are far cheaper than whole food concentrates;
b)  Synthetic vitamins USUALLY work quite well,
c) High potency can be achieved with a nice, small tablet size.

One of the chief differences in “health food store” vs “drug store” brands is what is not in the tablet.  For example, the natural brands leave out artificial chemical colors, which is a good thing to do. Just about all brands contain tablet fillers and excipients, needed to physically hold the pill together. Since these will vary, the only way to find out exactly who uses what is to write to the company and find out. 

Some tableting ingredients are pretty standard, such as magnesium stearate, sodium citrate, dicalcium phosphate, cellulose and silica. I consider these harmless fillers to be "natural enough" for me.

Vitamins can legally be called “Natural” even if made in a laboratory. You would not think so, but it is true. Vitamin C, for example, is factory-made from starch. Starch is certainly natural, so the product can be termed “Natural.”  Is this starch-based vitamin C identical to orange-juice vitamin C?  Most biochemists say yes, because: 


1) they appear to have identical molecular structure

2) vitamin C in animal bodies is made from carbohydrates anyway, and
3) the product is clinically effective.


But the actual molecular construction process is not identical. Factories do not use L-gulonolactone oxidase from animal liver to make vitamin C.  Nor do they copy the orange tree’s plant metabolism. Can one get an identical product from a different process?  Yes. But the real test must be, does the vitamin in front of you prevent and cure disease.

Drs. Linus Pauling, Ewan Cameron, Robert Cathcart and others have established that very high doses of factory-made ascorbic acid vitamin C work just fine against viral and bacterial illness. It is possible that food concentrate vitamin C may be superior.  Let’s say it was twice as good.  But to use 40,000 milligrams (mg) of orange juice C, instead of 80,000 mg of synthetic ascorbic acid, is impractical, bordering on the impossible.  It would be too expensive, either to manufacture all this from oranges, or to eat from the oranges. It would take roughly 600 oranges to obtain 40,000 mg of vitamin C.  Even if natural C were TEN times as effective, which I sincerely doubt, it would still take well over 100 oranges a day to do the job. 

My recommendation?  When you are sick, eat as many oranges (and other vitamin-C rich fruits) as you can, while you also take tens of thousands of milligrams of cheap, supplemental ascorbic acid vitamin C.

In some cases, the natural form of a vitamin IS clearly superior to the synthetic form.  The best example is vitamin E. The natural form of vitamin E is called "D-ALPHA TOCOPHEROL," and is made from vegetable oil. The synthetic form is DL-alpha tocopherol. Not a big difference in name, is it. There is considerable evidence that the natural "D" (dextro-, or right-handed) molecular form of Vitamin E is far more useful to the body than is the synthetic. The natural form is also more expensive, but not much more. In choosing a vitamin E supplement, you should carefully read the label... the ENTIRE label. It is remarkable how many natural-looking brown bottles with natural-sounding brand names contain the synthetic form. 

As you learn more and make your choices, I need to emphasize that I offer neither endorsement nor advice about any particular brand of supplement. Email or Facebook requests for product recommendations will not receive a reply.

“Whole Food” Supplement Checklist

Remember: my major objection to whole food vitamin supplements is that they are not.

This comment of mine was blocked from the “Reviews” section of a major supplement manufacturer.

"Whole food" vitamins should be entirely derived from whole foods. Look carefully at the side label claims for this product. There is no way you can get those high numbers from food concentrates alone. Laboratory/synthetic fortification is needed, and added, to reach those numbers. Yes, those are good high levels of vitamins. Yes, the tablet BASE is food. But the source of the vitamins is not. I have over 40 years in the natural health field and don't think laboratory vitamins should carry a whole-food price. Ask the manufacturer, in writing by email, if the entire label claim for potency is entirely derived from foods and foods alone. And ask what the food source is for each vitamin. I think this product is deceptively labeled.”

I have looked at some of the most respected names in the whole food supplement business, and have found products that are fortified to label claim with synthetic vitamins.

Laboratory vitamins in a food paste or food base does not justify a “Whole food” label. The base is not what you are buying the vitamin supplement for; you are buying the supplement for the vitamin.

Why would someone want to take “whole foods” supplements?

1) They do not want to eat the whole foods, or

2) they want higher potency than foods can provide

My opinion is: For higher potency, take cheap vitamins. The exception is vitamin E, which has to be the natural (mixed tocopherols plus all four tocotrienols). For the benefits of whole foods, eat the whole foods.

Vitamin E

All natural vitamin E is food derived, typically from vegetable oil. How much wheat germ oil would it take in a tablet or capsule to make even 50 IU of vitamin E?

If the supplement is a tablet, there is no oil in it. They use the dry (usually “succinate” form) of vitamin E.


How much brewers’ or nutritional yeast would it take to get even a moderately high amount of the B vitamins? I used to take brewer’s yeast tablets, and the answer is, about a dozen.

Vitamin C

All vitamin C is essentially food-derived (Corn or other food starch).

Most animals make their own vitamin C. What they make is ascorbic acid.

Vitamin C is ascorbic acid, C6H8O6, and that's pretty much all there is to it. If you really want to impress your friends, ascorbic acid can also be called (5R)-5-[(1S)-1,2-Dihydroxyethyl]-3,4-dihydroxy-2(5H)-furanone. As I liked to tell my university students, now there is something for you to answer when your parents ask what you learned in school today.

Even if this molecule comes from GMOs, which I disapprove of, it is still molecularly OK. You cannot genetically modify carbon, hydrogen, or oxygen atoms and you cannot genetically modify the physics of the bonds between them.

There are two ways the atoms can arrange themselves to make C6H8O6. One is ascorbic acid. The other is erythorbic acid, also known as isoascorbic acid or D-araboascorbic acid. It is a commercial antioxidant, but cannot be utilized by the body as an essential nutrient. Erythorbic acid is never a food supplement ingredient.

Synthesized ascorbic acid is the same as animals make, and the same as found in plants and fruits. There are many other beneficial factors in plants and fruits. So eat them.

Vitamin A

The carotene in just one medium carrot could provide 5,000 I.U. of vitamin A (U.S. Department of Agriculture, Nutritive Value of Foods, 1981). How much vitamin A is in your whole-food supplement? As it takes one medium carrot to give you the RDA of vitamin A as carotene, could that tablet hold a carrot? Could three or even six of those tablets contain a whole carrot?

Key "whole food" supplement shopping tactics

Look for very LOW potency. High potency cannot be obtained from “whole food” sources of the label-claim vitamins.

Look for HUGE tablets, and a label that will tell you to take 3, 4 or even 6 a day to meet the label claims.

You will NOT have to look for high price: that is a given.

Even the quite low RDA levels for vitamin C, magnesium, and niacin are unlikely to be met by whole food sources only.

And the issue is ONLY. A label-stated mixture of sources, or an ambiguous, vague label declaration means laboratory vitamins have been added.

I do not think you should pay a “whole food” price for a mostly synthetic product.

See also: Vitamin C: Which form is best?

The complete text of Irwin Stone's vitamin C book "The Healing Factor" is posted for free reading at

How to reach saturation (bowel tolerance) with oral doses of vitamin C, by Robert F. Cathcat

Different types (not brands) of supplements are considered at

“Buffering” ascorbic acid is covered at

and the bioflavinoids (vitamin C cofactors) are discussed at


Copyright 2013, 2018 Andrew W. Saul.


Andrew Saul is the author of the books FIRE YOUR DOCTOR! How to be Independently Healthy (reader reviews at ) and DOCTOR YOURSELF: Natural Healing that Works. (reviewed at )


Andrew W. Saul


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