Are vitamins and supplements healthy?

Many supplements use petroleum extracts, coal-tar derivatives and industrial chemicals.

It’s the big question of the coming decades. What am I getting when I buy vitamins? Because — deep sigh here — most ascorbic acid (vitamin C) tablets are not made from oranges: they are concocted in a lab.

For natural vitamin C, the plant would have to be listed on the bottle: “amla berry” or “derived from acerola cherry powder”. Which, if you look at the labels of commercial multivitamins, is not common.

The fact is that many vitamin supplements are synthetic or partially synthetic, and are made, processed or extracted using a host of petrochemical ingredients.

Then there are the products made from natural products that may have been extracted naturally or synthetically. And with fortified food — that is, food enriched with vitamins — so prevalent these days, how much vitamin intake do we need before we are just excreting expensive urine?

This debate in the coming years will affect us all. On one side are the wholefooders, who believe vitamin supplements can never do the job of natural ingredients. ­Vitamins need the phytonutrients and supporting molecules found in plants for assimilation into the body and are not much use in isolation, they say. Studies do show that natural vitamin C, for example, is more readily absorbed by the body than synthetic vitamin C (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 1988).

On the other side is the supplement army promoting vitamin tablets, tinctures, drinks, meal replacements and fortified foods. They claim our soil is inadequate in providing nutrients to the food we eat and that unless we supplement our diets with vitamins and minerals (be they synthetic or natural) we will wither and die from malnutrition.

It’s not just average people slugging it out. It’s leading scientists, politicians and Wall Street ­investors. Ironically, drug companies are pushing vitamins. Al Jazeera recently wrote about pharmaceutical firms having an each-way bet by purchasing vitamin firms. Pfizer owns Centrum and Bayer, Procter & Gamble has subsidiaries, and global corporations such as Nestle are getting into what we loosely call “the wellness industry”.

The supplement industry is worth $US90 billion ($122bn) in sales, and expected to $US112bn by 2018, according to British market intelligence firm Euromonitor.

Many scientists are adamant that you if you use vitamins, you can’t lump synthetics (chemically derived vitamin supplements) in with 100 per cent natural products and consider them all “health products”.

Synthetics or isolate-based supplements are effective and ­potent pharmaceuticals, so you need to ask: am I using this just for health maintenance or for a specific illness?

Synthetic vitamins are cheaper to make and usually more stable. They can last on shelves or in fortified foods for months or years without the delicate transport and storage requirements of natural produce.

So, what are you getting in your bottle? Marc Cohen, foundation professor of complementary medicine at RMIT University, says supplements can be totally synthetic to 100 per cent natural, or something in between: crushed whole herbs, vitamins derived from a herb, single ingredient isolates, partially synthesised.

Let’s take vitamin B1. It can appear on labels as thiamine mononitrate, its synthetic form.

Robert S. Hardt, a nutri-epigenetic biochemical analyst, writes on “Synthetic vitamin B1 is made with coal tar derivatives (think petrol!), hydrochloric acid or sometimes made with acetonitrile and ammonia.”

But is there anything wrong with that? To identify synthetics, some sites point to the use of words ending in -acid, -ide, or -ate (vitamin A: retinyl palmitate) or the use of “dl” before the name. When I was taking B12, I bought a supplement containing cyanocobalamin; looking it up, I discovered it is a man-made form of B12 containing cyanide, often synthetically derived from microbially decomposing sewage sludge. Others can contain acetone, dyes, crushed animal bits, and talc.

However, there are those who say synthetic is not a dirty word and these ingredients are often more effective than natural counterparts. Lesley Braun, associate professor of integrative medicine and director of the Blackmores Institute, says rather than slaughter countless cows to get coenzyme Q10, it is made in labs by the Japanese. “It’s bio-identical and proven very effective,” she says.

US naturopath Robert Thiel says many supplements use petroleum extracts in the compound or extraction process, coal tar derivatives, and chemically processed sugar plus acids and industrial chemicals in the processing.

This is not unusual, says RMIT’s Cohen. Petrochemicals are also found in cosmetics, shampoos and medicines.

Meanwhile, cyanide traces are found in foods such as apricot kernels and apple pips, points out Sydney chemist, pharmacist and herbalist John F. Pelly. He says vitamin isolates work for specific ­ailments, but they are a pharmaceutical medicine and a doctor’s opinion should be sought.

He opposes the routine use of multivitamins, saying: “One size does not fit all.”

Braun says Blackmores and its subsidiary BioCeuticals use as much naturally sourced product as possible. Vitamins are just a part of what the company produces and its top-selling Evening Primrose Oil is sourced 100 per cent from the plant. “There are vitamins, oils, herbs, minerals, harvested fish, probiotics, protein concentrates — so many different types of product,” she says. “Each is handled and manufactured … using a combination of processes.”

The US Organic Consumers Association advocates truth in labelling and suggests buyers should opt for 100 per cent plant or fish-based products. It points out that the word “natural” is used liberally. For instance if a vitamin C product contains 90 per cent synthetic ascorbic acid with an added 10 per cent dried rosehip powder, this allows the label to call it “natural”.

How a herb is extracted and stored affects its potency, according to Christopher Dean, founder and former chairman of TP Health (makers of Thursday Plantation tea tree oil) and now chairman of global company Organic India. He says both companies take great pains to preserve the raw source of the product.

A manufacturer’s reputation is an important factor to consider. Cohen compares it to the difference between Grange Hermitage and cask wine. Both are made from the Vitis vinifera grape; the wine’s quality depends on rainfall, altitude, aspect, soil quality, harvesting, crushing, fermentation and storage conditions.

Vitamin manufacturers increasingly use the term “bio-identical” (which means it is synthetic but mimics nature) and the fermentation extraction method for certain vitamins. But since a lot of the raw material (made industrially en masse and sold to vitamin producers) is made in China and offshore, processing protocols are hard to monitor and test in terms of strength, purity and standards of excluding chemical impurities from the final product.

Cohen says: “The best has always been whole, organic food, in season and locally grown. Nature has being doing its job for years.” The closest you come to consuming nutrients in their natural form, the better, he says.

Hippocrates said: “Let thy food be thy medicine.” But a modern alternative, particularly when it comes to vitamins, may well be: Keep your eyes wide open.

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply