Dietary Supplements—Does Synthetic Mean Fake?
Words can be used to allay or contribute to unwarranted fears. Often one hears phrases such as “whole-food” versus “synthetic” dietary supplements. What’s the difference? Let’s begin with basic terminology.
- Synthetic—relating to or produced by chemical or biochemical synthesis
- Synthesis—the production of a substance by the union of chemical elements, groups, or simpler compounds or by the degradation of a complex compound
- Whole food—a naturally occurring, plant-based food and especially an unprocessed one (such as a vegetable or fruit)
Words can impact the perception of quality. For many, the word “synthetic” suggests fake and/or artificial. Consider this: Most, if not all, macronutrients (protein, carbohydrate, fat, and fiber) and micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients) used in medical foods, functional foods, and dietary supplements are, in fact, synthesized or processed for use in supplements. This does not make these nutrients fake or artificial. They still remain natural or nature-identical. Some examples:
L-ascorbic acid is the naturally occurring form of vitamin C as found in many foods, including fruits such as oranges or cherries or plants such as rose hips. Each whole, unprocessed food that contains vitamin C also contains a unique blend of additional nutrients. No two foods will have vitamin C mixed with the exact same mixture of additional nutrients. There is no single “natural” vitamin C blend, and the additional nutrients do not change the biochemistry of the vitamin C itself.
While humans have lost the ability to endogenously synthesize vitamin C, certain mammals such as cows and sheep retain this ability. These animals produce vitamin C by a synthetic process—chemical synthesis from simple sugar. The vitamin C synthesized by these animals is not biochemically different than the vitamin C found in their food.
Vitamin C, as L-ascorbic acid, is natural vitamin C—regardless of endogenous chemical synthesis by an animal, chemically synthesized by the whole food, or synthesized for use in a dietary supplement.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 oils as used in supplements are found in any number of forms (triglyceride, reesterified triglyceride, phospholipid, emulsified, ethyl ester, free-fatty acid). While there may be minor bioavailability differences among these forms, they are all forms of EPA/DHA synthesized from a natural source: no longer whole foods,being separated from the remainder of the nutrients found in fish (flesh, protein), but still starting from naturally occurring sources of EPA and DHA. Algal EPA and DHA are similar. While synthesized by certain microorganisms (certain Schizochytrium sp.) Algal EPA and DHA are created through synthesis of naturally occurring EPA and DHA by these microorganisms.
The human body
The human body is also a complex chemical factory, making or chemically synthesizing nutrients for use by the body. Proteins are prime examples. Humans do not absorb whole proteins from the diet; we digest them first (“degradation of a complex compound”), breaking proteins down to smaller peptides and free amino acids which then need to be synthesized (a “union of chemical elements”) into various other proteins, often structurally different from the food the individual amino acids came from. Further, the body chemically manufactures any number of nutrients from simpler compounds; glutamine and EPA/DHA are two examples of internal chemical synthesis.
Practically speaking, certain amino acids such as glutamine and certain fats (e.g.: EPA, DHA, GLA, arachidonic acid) would be considered synthetic, as they are “the union of chemical elements” converted by the body either into a more complex structure or degraded to a simpler one (fats are naturally elongated or shortened and hydrogenated or dehydrogenated).
What is the takeaway?
No one would consider nutrients chemically synthesized by the body as being synthetic or artificial. The discerning practitioner and discerning patient (consumer) need to look beyond words. Dig deeper to understand the concepts. If anyone says, “Hey, that’s synthetic,” or “We have whole-food nutrients,” that should raise a big caution.
- What do they mean, whole food? After all, cooking any food—plant or animal—changes that food.
- If the suggestion is that certain nutrients are synthetic or unnatural, ask specifically what that means. How is this different from the natural, biochemical synthesis of these same compounds in nature?