Go Ask Mom

Go Ask Mom

Duke Medicine: Are synthetic vitamins, supplements just as good as natural?

Posted February 21, 2011 8:29 p.m. EST

Are synthetic vitamins and supplements just as good natural ones? Margaret Jazayeri, a physician assistant at Duke Primary Care Timberlyne, offers some answers.

It can be very confusing when shopping for vitamins and supplements.

Natural vitamins and supplements are made from a source that actually occurs in nature, such as a leaf, stalk, or juice from a plant. Synthetic products are made from artificial ingredients that mimic the natural ones.

Major vitamin and supplement producers usually try to buy the cheapest ingredients, which tend to be synthetic versions. Most synthetic vitamins and supplements are coated with chemicals that make it very difficult for your body to absorb the nutrients. Your body just eliminates them.

Studies have determined that the natural form of vitamins and supplements are more potent in the effect they give on your health.

Many health-related websites will advise you to buy the products that do not have chemical-sounding names because they are probably not natural. The problem with that advice is that most vitamins and supplements actually do have chemical sounding names. For example, Vitamin C is called ascorbate, chemically. B-12 is called cyanocobalmin.

Here are some easy ways to recognize if your vitamin or supplement is natural and not synthetic.

  • Look at the ingredients to see what is NOT in your product. Well-made natural vitamins and supplements do not contain things like sugar, yeast, salt, gluten, or other artificial fillers, colors, or preservatives. However, vitamins and supplements do need some natural fillers to keep the pill or form from falling apart. Usually those fillers are some kind of cellulose or stearate.
  • Look for the letters “d” or “dl.” A “d” in front of the name of the vitamin is good; “dl” is not. Here’s why: Polarized light in the laboratories can be beamed onto the vitamin or supplement. In natural products, the molecules spin together and the light goes to the right; this is indicated by a small letter “d” in front of the vitamin or supplement name. Synthetic vitamins and supplements split the beam of polarized light in half, and this is indicated by small letters “dl” in front of the name of the vitamin or supplement.

When in doubt, you can usually ask your pharmacist for guidance. Many health care providers and pharmacists are aware of what we call alternative and complementary medicines. Always tell your health care provider and pharmacist all vitamins and supplements you are taking. Vitamins and supplements can be a great addition to your overall health, but they can interact with your prescribed medications.

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