“Bioavailability is a measure of how much of a substance is absorbed,” explains medical writer Cameron Wright, “not an issue of recognition by the body. If it’s an identical substance, no matter what the source, then – all other things being the same – it will be absorbed in the same amount.”
At a basic level, our bodies should respond to synthetic and natural vitamins identically. Cameron explains that vitamins are molecules: “A lot of natural molecules can be replicated, identically, through purely synthetic processes. As long as the atoms that make up the molecule are arranged in the correct shape, the molecule will behave identically, regardless of whether it were manufactured in a living cell or a series of test tubes.”
It’s unanimous: wholefoods are the ideal vehicle for getting nourishing vitamins into the body, and a healthy diet should always be the number-one priority. “Vitamins are not food, nor can they be substituted,” says Lynley. “Vitamins are needed by the body to function properly and should be prescribed properly if and when needed.”
It is difficult for consumers to recognise the distinction between synthetic and natural supplements just by reading the label on the bottle. Lynley estimates that the majority (more than 95 per cent) of vitamin supplements in the marketplace are synthetic, and adds that it depends on how you define ‘natural’. “Fish oil is referred to as natural but it is highly processed. Many labels may say natural, but it is not a technical term,” she says.
When we hear the word ‘synthetic’, it’s tempting to imagine an inferior version of some better alternative. An imitation. However, in the case of most supplements, the word synthetic refers to the process that creates the vitamin; the molecule itself is usually identical to those found in nature.
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