In the first part of this two part series we focused on the misleading marketing surrounding the booming whole food supplement market and revealed the fact that many (if not all) of these “whole food” supplements actually contain synthetic and synthetically produced vitamins and minerals. Exactly the opposite of what most whole food supplement consumers think they are purchasing. Additionally, we also revealed that whole food supplements inherently contain nutrient robbing anti-nutrients and absorption blocking competitions, and can be problematic for individuals with food sensitivities.

In this second part of this series we are going to discuss the sometimes-confusing science behind synthetic supplementation and focus on ways you can reap the benefits of these often demonized ingredients while avoiding their very real dangers.  


In order to have a conversation about the differences between whole food and synthetic supplementation we need first to establish a clear definition as to what a whole food and synthetic supplement is. In this post we are defining whole food and synthetic supplements in the following ways.


Whole food supplements are supplements that are made exclusively from whole foods such as whole fruits, whole vegetables or whole grains that have been naturally processed into a delivery system (i.e. a liquid or powder) that is then used as a dietary supplement. As a consumer it should be expected that the vitamins and minerals in whole food supplements are delivered in the same naturally occurring dosages as they are found in each respective whole food ingredient and intact with the naturally occurring vitamins, minerals and other cofactors one would receive if they were to eat that whole food. In other words we consider whole food supplements to be the closest thing possible to the whole food one would purchase in a grocery store or farmer's market and expect that they do NOT contain synthetic or synthetically created, laboratory produced vitamins or minerals.

Examples of whole food supplements:

  • Apple Pulp – There is no pre-inspection requirement for whole food nutrients. Contaminants could be present and apples are sprayed with more pesticides than almost any fruit on the planet.
  • Beet Juice – Beets naturally contain both copper and iron – two micronutrients that should be omitted from multivitamins. Iron also blocks the absorption of 10 other vitamins and minerals so adding this in may reduce efficacy.  Additionally, beets are high in oxalic acid, which bind to the calcium, magnesium, and iron and block their absorption.


(Please take the time to read the first part of this series called Whole Food Vitamins Exposed here.)

1. 99% of people who purchase whole food supplements think that they are purchasing products that fit the definition above— meaning that they only contain nutrients from whole food sources.

2. Whole food supplement companies often use misleading marketing to convince consumers that they are purchasing products made entirely from whole food.

3. Whole food companies often condemn synthetic ingredients as a way to instill fear into their customers and try to convince them that whole food supplements are good and synthetic supplements are bad.

Contrary to what many of these whole food supplement companies would like you to think, the issue of whole food VS synthetic supplements is not that black and white. The truth is, not all synthetic ingredients are dangerous. In fact, in some cases, they are safer and more effective than whole food ingredients. Let’s take a closer look at and define synthetic supplements.

SYNTHETIC SUPPLEMENTS – Both beneficial and dangerous.

Synthetic supplements are supplements that contain extracted/isolated vitamins and/or minerals that have been synthetically produced in a laboratory and most often have been standardized for potency.

From this broad definition we can further break down synthetic supplements into two important and distinct categories.

  1. Beneficial synthetically produced micronutrients
  2. Potentially dangerous synthetically produced micronutrients

Beneficial synthetically produced micronutrients are most often extracted or isolated from whole food or natural ingredients, are chemically and molecularly identical to their whole food counterpart, and in some cases are delivered in what is know as the nutrients active form, which allows for superior absorption and/or utilization.  

Examples of beneficial synthetically produced micronutrients:

  • Vitamin C (Ascorbic acid) – Ascorbic Acid sometimes gets a bad name because it is a synthetic source of vitamin C, but why? The reason is that synthetic vitamin C can come in two forms, L-ascorbic acid and D-Ascorbic. L-ascorbic acid has all the benefits and the D form does not. As long as the synthetic form of ascorbic acid is all L-ascorbic acid it has the exact same effect on the body as natural ascorbic acid found in whole foods. In fact, according to the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University “Natural and synthetic L-ascorbic acid are chemically identical, and there are no known differences in their biological activity.”
  • Lutein – Another example of a beneficial synthetically produced, lab made, standardized ingredient is lutein. Many quality supplements will include lutein for eye health, and while whole food supplements may get their lutein source from spinach or kale there is no way to know exactly how much lutein will be in each bushel and therefore these whole food sources cannot be standardized. However, lutein can also safely and effectively be extracted from marigolds (the flower). This synthetically produced form of lutein is a natural source that allows supplement manufacturers to include specific quantities of this beneficial ingredient into their formulations without the inherent anti-nutrients that are present in whole food supplements.
  • Vitamin B9 (L-5-MTHF) – Lastly, let’s look a synthetically produced, lab made, and in some cases patented form of folate (vitamin B9) called L-5-MTHF. Now this is where synthetically produced micronutrients actually have a leg up over whole food sources, but it is also where the lines can blur in regards to the benefits of synthetic supplements. There are actually two forms of synthetically produced folate – L-5-MTHF and folic acid. For years many supplements (especially prenatal vitamins) used synthetic folic acid as the form of vitamin B9 because of folic acids superior absorption rates over whole food folate. Recently, folic acid got a new brother called L-5-MTHF— a synthetically produced form of folate that is better than folic acid because it is actually delivered in the active form the body needs it to be in to do its job.

This is important because folate from whole food and folic acid is difficult for some people to convert into its active form due to a genetic mutation of the MTHFR gene that interferes with the production of the MTHFR enzyme that is required to convert food folate and folic acid into its active form (5-methylenetetrahydrofolate). It is now estimated that as many as 60% of the population may have this genetic mutation. This is why there are so many people out there cautioning against the use of synthetic folic acid, because people with the MTHFR mutation cannot utilize folic acid and it can build up in the body, which can increase levels of homocysteine – a risk factor associated with cardiovascular disease. In this case synthetic folic acid falls into the second definition and could be dangerous. However, it is also why some many supplements are using synthetically produced L-5-MTHF as their form of folate. In this case synthetically produced L-5-MTHF is not only beneficial, but also superior to whole food folate.

Once you begin to understand that synthetically made, lab produced vitamins can have the exact same chemical and molecular structure as whole food micronutrients then it becomes easier to see how all synthetic micronutrients are not the evil demons some whole food manufactures would like you to believe they are.

But, before you begin to think all synthetic vitamins are to be trusted, we must first look at the second type of synthetic micronutrients that can be potentially dangerous and therefore avoided.

Potentially dangerous, synthetically produced micronutrients are usually not extracted or isolated from whole food or natural ingredients, are not chemically and molecularly identical to their whole food counterpart, and in some cases have been shown to be unrecognizable by the body resulting in inferior absorption and/or utilization.

Examples of potentially dangerous, synthetically produced micronutrients:

  • Vitamin B12 (cyanocobalamin): The first potentially dangerous synthetic vitamin we are going to talk about is cyanocobalamin. While cyanocobalamin is the standard (most-typically delivered) source of B12 in most vitamin supplements, is not a natural source. In fact, cyanocobalamin is not found anywhere in nature. The potential danger of this particular synthetic form of B12 is that just like folic acid, it must be converted by the liver into the active form of B12 –methylcobalamin, in order be utilized in humans (and all other animals).  Just like in the example of folic acid above, for individuals with a mutation of the MTHFR gene, supplementing with cyanocobalamin could lead to a B12 deficiency, which on its own could lead to permanent brain and nerve damage, but could also increase homocysteine levels increasing the potential for heart disease.  Instead, well-formulated supplements should source methylcobalamin, a beneficial synthetically produced micronutrients
  • Vitamin E (dl- alpha-tocopherol): There are two forms of synthetically produced vitamin E – a natural source vitamin E (d-alpha-tocopherol) typically derived from vegetable oils and a synthetic vitamin E (dl-alpha-tocopherol) typically derived from petroleum products. While both are synthetically produced, lab made, standardized version of vitamin E the difference between why one is considered to be beneficial and the other potentially dangerous has everything to do with the differences in the molecular structures of the two forms, which affect how well the vitamin is retained in the body and, in turn, its biological availability.

Synthetic vitamin E (dl-alpha-tocopherol) is a mixture of eight alpha-tocopherol stereoisomers in equal amounts. Only one of these stereoisomers, 12.5% of the total mixture, is d-alpha-tocopherol, the natural form. The human body is confused by this new synthetic E.  The carrier protein in the liver prefers the molecular makeup of the natural vitamin E. d-alpha- tocopherol, the natural form, is retained better and for longer time in the body when compared to the synthetic form. The bioavailability is approximately 2:1 for natural-source vitamin E over synthetic vitamin E. To compensate for the lower retention of synthetic vitamin E, a person or animal would have to ingest twice the amount of synthetic vitamin E (by weight) to match the bioavailability of the natural form.

However, the problem with synthetic vitamin E goes beyond bioavailability, studies show that there is a real danger of negative health consequences when products contain the synthetic petrochemically-derived form of dl-alpha tocopherol. Research show that high doses—400 IU's a day or more—of synthetic vitamin E (dl-alpha tocopherol) daily – may increase your risk of prostate cancer by 17 percent! Make sure your supplement does not contain any dl – synthetic vitamin E.

  • Vitamin D2 (Ergocalciferol): Just like with vitamin E, there are two forms of synthetically produced, lab made vitamin D available in supplemental form: vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol) and vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol). Here again the two forms are not bioequivalent and should not be considered interchangeable. D2 is made in plants and fungus exposed to ultraviolet light, synthesized in laboratories and has the molecular formula C28H44O.  D3, the preferred beneficial source, is made in the skin of vertebrates when exposed to sunlight and has the molecular formula C27H44O. Because of its additional carbon molecule D2 does not follow the same pathways and is not as effective as D3.

Unfortunately, vitamin D2 is still found in many supplements and is the nutrient most often used to fortify dairy products. Studies show that D3 (cholecalciferol) is more than 3 times as effective as D2 (ergocalciferol) in elevating 25-hydroxyvitamin D (i.e. your vitamin D levels) and maintaining those levels long-term. Researchers found that D3 metabolites have superior affinity for vitamin D-binding proteins in plasma, relative to D2. The investigators concluded that D2 potency is less than 30% of that of D3 and that it has a markedly shorter duration of action. In fact, research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found that vitamin D2 supplementation actually caused a reduction in overall serum concentrations of vitamin D [25(OH)D] over 28 days, with serum levels actually falling below baseline (starting) levels! The researchers concluded that vitamin D2 should no longer be regarded as a nutrient appropriate for supplementation or fortification of foods.

This is why we have included D2 in the potentially dangerous category, while the milk fortified with D2, or the poorly formulated supplement that includes D2, isn’t going to cause any immediate danger, ingesting this particular form of synthetically produced vitamin D could set the stage for a future vitamin D deficiency and the formation of any number of health conditions and disease associated with vitamin D deficiency – including Alzheimer’s disease, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and osteoporosis. Make sure your supplement delivers vitamin D3.


So, some of these whole food supplement manufacturers weren’t entirely wrong – there is good reason to avoid CERTAIN forms of synthetic vitamins like the plague, but not all of them. In fact as we have just seen, in some cases synthetically produced vitamins such as L-5-MTHF and methylcobalamin could actually be more beneficial for some people than whole food! But this is not where the benefits of CERTAIN synthetically produced micronutrients end. There are additional benefits to some synthetically produced supplements over whole food supplements that should also be considered.


Remember, that in the previous blog we identified 4 drawbacks of whole food supplements beyond their misleading marketing. Let’s now examine how synthetically formulated micronutrients can erase these concerns.

  • Synthetically produced micronutrients are less expensive. In most cases, synthetic vitamins and minerals are less expensive than their whole food counterparts. This can save you a lot of money.
  • Synthetically produced micronutrients do not contain anti-nutrients. What do you get when you ingest a supplement containing synthetic vitamins and minerals?  You get exactly what is on the supplement facts.  Nothing more and nothing less.  There are no anti-nutrients hiding inside to block the absorption and utilization of the vitamins and minerals themselves.  Additionally, you will also be avoiding the anti-nutrients known to destroy the gut lining, cause leaky gut and further reduce likelihood of proper nutrient absorption.
  • Synthetically produced micronutrients are not problematic for individuals with food sensitivities, the MTHFR genetic mutation, and damaged gut. Individuals with a compromised gut lining or with the genetic MTHFR mutation will likely find synthetically produced supplements easier to absorb. And you won’t find ingredients that are problematic for those with food allergies in these synthetically formulated, isolated micronutrients.
  • Synthetically produced micronutrients can supply exact dosages and can be separated to eliminate micronutrient competitions. Because synthetically produced micronutrients are isolated formulators can deliver specific amounts of each micronutrient (by using standardized, synthetically produced USP vitamins and minerals) and the consumer can be sure of EXACTLY what is in the supplement. Additionally, unlike whole food supplements, a well-formulate multivitamin that utilizes beneficial synthetically produced micronutrients has the ability to separate competing micronutrients. When you look at the fact that absorption depleting micronutrient competitions occur between nearly 80% of the vitamins and minerals commonly found in a multivitamin, you quickly realize that this one benefit alone can leave you with a far superior supplement.


So let’s go back to the first question we asked you at the very beginning of this two part series “Based on your current knowledge, which are better “whole food” supplements or supplements that use synthetic ingredients? “ Your answer now may be different than it was the first time we asked this question, but that was our whole point in writing this blog. Our goal is not to convince you that one supplement is better than another, but to make you aware of what to look for when trying to purchase a healthy, high quality supplement for yourself and your family.

So what is better? The truth is, the best supplement is one that works for you (i.e. actually helps you to achieve a state of micronutrient sufficiency) and comes from a company you trust. Here at Calton Nutrition we have tried to earn your trust over the years by having open and honest conversation about issues (like this one) and producing high quality supplements that have been proven effective at creating micronutrient sufficiency, based on lab administered blood test that analyze micronutrient levels, in hundreds of customers.

We also created the ABC’s of Optimal Supplementation Guidelines as an easy to understand way to help you to identifying a well-formulated supplement. We used these guidelines to formulate our multivitamin nutreince and all of our other supplements. The ABC’s of Optimal Supplementation Guidelines addresses proper Absorption, Beneficial quantities and forms of different micronutrients, as well as each micronutrient’s potential for Competition and synergy. (Learn More Here)  We are extremely transparent with the forms of micronutrients we choose for our products and always answer questions to help consumers understand their benefits – such as improved absorption and methylation.

Our goal is and always has been to create the safest, highest quality supplements possible. Click here to learn more about our patented multivitamin nutreince.



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