This article was originally published in The Cournalist of Santa Cruz, California.
Let’s say you want to buy a car. If somebody gave you something that looks and sounds just like a car, but doesn’t drive, you would feel pretty ripped off. Yet here we are consuming basically useless synthetic vitamins in our processed foods and supplements, thinking it’s the real thing.
Vitamins are great. They are required by our cells to maintain general health. Some vitamins are fat soluble, so they stick around for a while, and others are water soluble, meaning they need to be replaced regularly.
In an ideal world, we would all be eating minimally processed whole foods from which we would obtain all the vitamins we need. In the real world, we often need to take special precautions to make sure we get enough vitamins. We try to eat vitamin rich foods and often supplement with a multivitamin. Inadequate vitamin levels have been linked to heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis and other diseases in a number of studies.
So why am I so angry about something as banal as vitamins?
Whole foods have tons of vitamins. Be it an orange or a whole grain, whole foods are chock full of the good stuff. Unfortunately, processing foods can do a lot of damage to these vitamins. When you mash up oranges and expose the insides to air, the vitamins oxidize and become mostly useless. Yes, you’d better get your vitamin C from an orange, not from orange juice. Heat can also destroy vitamin molecules. During processing, grains are broken down such that the flour ends up with virtually no vitamins whatsoever. If you’re going to eat bread, you’d better make it whole grain bread.
When processing leads to the depletion of vitamins, food processors often decide to add synthetic vitamins back in, either because of government regulations or marketing reasons. Synthetic vitamins are added to everything. Read your labels and look for “enriched” flours. Many of the strange and difficult to pronounce ingredients in processed foods are in fact added vitamins.
Sadly, synthetic vitamins are basically a sham. As if they didn’t understand what low quality these vitamins really are, food processors often market their products on the very basis of the health these vitamins are supposed to provide. If you look at the packaging for garbage foods from Cheeto’s to Frosted Flakes, you hardly get the idea that eating them might kill you some day.
Why are synthetic vitamins bad?
Synthetic vitamins were first created in the 1930s by the pharmaceutical industry, and are generally derived from “coal tars and artificial colorings, preservatives, disintegrents, coating materials, and other additives” (Randall Fitzgerald, The Hundred-Year Lie 136-137). For example, vitamin e is a byproduct of the film manufacturing process, and vitamin c is “derived from cornstarch, corn sugar, and volatile acids mixed in a fermentation process” (137). Synthetic vitamins look the same as vitamins found in nature, but “they don’t assimilate the same way in the human body. Studies of vitamin c and vitamin e show that the naturally occurring forms are more absorbable by the body and more biologically active than synthetics” (137).
Research confirming the superiority of whole foods vitamins have been published in numerous journals. One example: “In a 1996 study at Oregon State University six volunteers were given 150-milligram doses of synthetic vitamin e and later the same dose of vitamin e from natural sources. Urine tests showed conclusively that the human body prefers natural vitamin e by its retention of it and by how quickly it excretes the synthetic version” (137).
What about multivitamins? A recent government-funded study supposedly proved that there was no benefit to taking a daily multivitamin. This is very telling, especially considering the fact that the authors of the study as well as the writers who covered it seemed not to care about vitamin quality. In my view, it is only natural that synthetic multivitamins would fail to offer benefits, and I would very much like to see a study on quality multivitamins produced from whole foods.
It’s about time for a conclusion and a little bit of advice. The fact that we have been coaxed into consuming fake vitamins is not surprising, but it would be unfortunate if readers of an article like this continued to do so. It’s time to move on to whole foods and vitamins derived from them. Whole foods vitamins come from food; in a way, they are food. Supplementing with a whole foods multivitamin and a high quality fish oil is a great idea; try asking around at your local health food store.