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Question:
Is it better to get vitamins from foods or supplements, and are natural vitamins better than synthetic vitamins?

Answer:
It is generally best to get your vitamins (as well as minerals) naturally from foods or, in the case of vitamin D, controlled sun exposure.  For example, recent research on the mineral calcium suggests that it is safest to get your calcium from foods that are naturally rich in calcium than from supplements. Older women who get high amounts of calcium from supplements seem to have a higher risk of kidney stones, strokes, and even a greater risk of dying over periods of time. A small increased risk of death has also been seen in studies of people taking supplements containing vitamin A and beta-carotene compared to those who did not.

Exceptions to the "foods are better" rule are two B vitamins. Ten to thirty percent of older people don't properly digest and absorb natural vitamin B-12 from foods, so it is recommended to get B-12 from a supplement if you are over age 50. Folic acid (vitamin B-9) from supplements and fortified foods is absorbed better -- about 70% better -- than folate from regular foods such as spinach. Consequently, pregnant woman are advised to get folic acid from a supplement (or fortified food) as well as regular foods. Also keep in mind that if you get your iron from plant foods, it is absorbed only half as well as iron from meat -- although eating your spinach (or iron supplement) with a source of vitamin C will boost the absorption of its iron.

Using supplements made from whole foods won't necessarily give you more vitamins (in fact, they typically contain more modest amounts of vitamins than other dietary supplements), but you will get other plant compounds which could be of potential benefit (as well as some grams of fiber if you are consuming, for example, spoonfuls of a whole food powder as opposed to a pill). Paying a premium price for this, however, may not be worthwhile and ConsumerLab.com has found lead contamination in some whole food and "greens" products.

Regarding natural vs. synthetic forms of vitamins in dietary supplements, sometimes natural is better, sometimes synthetic is better, and sometimes it doesn't matter. Keep in mind that all can help prevent or treat deficiencies and other conditions, and nearly all are known to be harmful at too high a dose.

Natural may be better in the case of vitamin E.  At low doses, either natural (d-alpha-tocopherol) or synthetic (dl-alpha-tocopherol) can be fine, although you need more IUs of synthetic (1.6 IU) to get the same amount of active vitamin E as from 1 IU of natural vitamin E. There is also a greater risk of bleeding problems with synthetic vitamin E at high doses, so that the upper limit for vitamin E for adults is 1,100 IU of synthetic vitamin E, but 1,500 IU of natural vitamin E. Naturally, vitamin E also contains other tocopherols and tocotrienols, which may have benefit.  However, ConsumerLab.com tests show that not all "natural" vitamin E products contain these additional natural compounds.

Natural may also be better with vitamin K. A form of vitamin K-2, known as MK-7, naturally derived from fermented soy beans and used in supplements is better at raising vitamin K levels than supplements with synthetic K-1 or synthetic K-2, known as MK-4.

Natural or synthetic sources are both fine for getting vitamin C. Rose hips or acerola or synthetically produced vitamin C all provide the same compound -- ascorbic acid. The inclusion of citrus bioflavonoids (naturally present or added) may improve absorption.

Sometimes synthetic forms of vitamins offer advantages over natural forms. A synthetic form of niacin (vitamin B-3) called inositol hexanicotinate, for example, causes less flushing of the skin than niacin.

Use the links above to get more information about each vitamin or mineral, including ConsumerLab.com's tests and reviews of supplements containing those nutrients. For recommended daily intakes of these and other vitamins and minerals also see the Recommended Daily Intake tables, which includes upper intake limits.



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kevin 11735   February 19, 2017
I'm not for the synthetics because it is clear that they are different then nature! So I hope that you investigated it more because synthetics are not the way to go. Maybe for some in critical condition like intravenous C but the natural form of C has more components like the bioflavonoids & Co so synthetic C is no vitamin C at all! And that is for al the lab-made vitamins! Investigate when researchers in the lab uses light to the naturals vs the synthetics. The light bounces different in the naturals vs the synthetics so it is not the same. And the body have more problems with the synthetics to make something from it because it must uses up natural resources that it has to bound it with synthetics so you see that we do not play with it like gods and do a better job then nature has done it. Only this last sentence says it all in my mind and synthetics are also cheaper and the most studies are done with synthetics and why is that? It's al to do with time and money and nothing with our health. That's my take on it with years of studies.

ConsumerLab.com   February 19, 2017
Hi Kevin - If you are able to get and absorb sufficient amounts of all essential nutrients naturally from foods, and your body is able to utilize them, that's great and the best way to go. However, as noted above, there are many situations in which synthetic forms are helpful due to difficulties people have with extracting, absorbing, or metabolizing natural forms of certain vitamins. These situations are not rare, as you suggest, but affect many people, such as older people who have trouble extracting/absorbing vitamin B-12 from food.

Jane D11707   February 15, 2017
What about fortified foods? Is orange juice fortified with calcium actually be any safer than a calcium supplement? If so, why?

ConsumerLab.com   February 19, 2017
Calcium from calcium-fortified orange juice would likely have the same benefits and risks as as calcium from a supplement.

Jim608   March 13, 2015
I wonder if my body adapts to getting vitamins from pill will not take effort to get it from food, does one cancel out the other if you eat healthy and take pills? I always hoped I was filling in gaps.

Tony595   March 11, 2015
Please comment on the difference between natural and synthetic astaxanthin

ConsumerLab.com   March 16, 2015
Hi Tony - We've now added a CL Answer about natural and synthetic astaxanthin (https://www.consumerlab.com/answers/%20/astaxanthin/) and additional information in the Fish Oil and Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplements Review (https://www.consumerlab.com/reviews/%20/omega3/#syntheticastaxanthin).

This CL Answer initially posted on 7/18/2012. Last updated 8/8/2017.

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