Synthetic vs. Natural Nutrients: Does it matter?

Many people do not get enough nutrients just from the diet (1).

Currently, more than half of the US population. UU Consume synthetic nutrients such as multivitamins (2).

However, there has been much debate about whether synthetic nutrients provide the same benefits as natural nutrients.

Some sources even suggest that synthetic nutrients can be dangerous.

This article objectively analyzes the science of synthetic and natural nutrients.

What are synthetic and natural nutrients?

Here is the difference between natural and synthetic nutrients:

  • Natural nutrients These are obtained from sources of whole foods in the diet.

  • Synthetic nutrients: Also known as isolated nutrients, these are usually manufactured artificially, in an industrial process.

Synthetic nutrients do not include "whole food supplements," which are made from dehydrated whole foods and concentrates.

Most of the supplements available in the market today are made artificially. These include vitamins, antioxidants, minerals and amino acids, among others.

They can be taken in the form of a pill, capsule, tablet, powder or liquid, and are designed to mimic the way natural nutrients act in our bodies.

To find out if your supplement is synthetic or natural, check the label. Natural supplements generally list food sources or are labeled as 100% based on plants or animals.

Supplements that list nutrients individually, such as vitamin C, or that use chemical names such as ascorbic acid, are almost certainly synthetic.

Bottom line: Synthetic nutrients are dietary supplements made artificially in a laboratory environment or industrial process. The natural nutrients are those found in whole foods.

Are the natural and synthetic nutrients different?

The accepted opinion is that synthetic nutrients are almost chemically identical to those found in food.

However, the process of producing synthetic nutrients is very different from the way that plants and animals create them. So, despite having a similar structure, your body may react differently to synthetic nutrients.

In addition, it is not clear how well synthetic nutrients are absorbed and used in the body. Some can be absorbed more easily, others can not (3).

This is because when you eat real food, it does not consume individual nutrients, but a whole range of vitamins, minerals, cofactors and enzymes that allow optimal use by the body.

Without these additional compounds, it is unlikely that the body will use synthetic nutrients in the same way as their natural counterparts (4).

For example, studies show that natural vitamin E is absorbed twice as efficiently as synthetic vitamin E (5).

Bottom line: It is not clear how well synthetic nutrients are absorbed and used in the body. Your body will best utilize the nutrients when taken in the form of whole foods, with a wide variety of food compounds.

Nutrients in whole foods have health benefits

Natural whole foods can help control and prevent heart disease, diabetes, cancer and premature death.

These benefits have been related to the wide range of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber and fatty acids found in whole foods.

Fruits and vegetables

Fruits and vegetables provide us with fiber, vitamins, minerals and plant compounds, which are considered responsible for many health benefits.

Observational studies show that a higher intake of fruits and vegetables is related to a lower risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, arthritis and some brain disorders (6, 7, 8).

The increase in fruit intake is also related to lower blood pressure, lower oxidative stress and better control of blood sugar (9, 10).

One review found that for each daily serving of fruit or vegetables consumed, the risk of heart disease decreased by 4-7% (11).

Oily fish

Scientists believe that high levels of omega-3 fatty acids in fish are responsible for improving the health of the heart.

Many large observational studies have shown that people who eat fish regularly have a lower risk of heart attacks, strokes and death from heart disease (12, 13, 14, 15).

A study of more than 40,000 men aged 40 to 75 years found that those who regularly ate one or more servings of fish per week had a 15% lower risk of heart disease (16).

Beans and Legumes

Experts believe that the high content of soluble fiber and the wide range of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants in beans and legumes can help reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes and certain types of cancer (17, 18, 19).

Eating a portion of legumes such as beans, peas and chickpeas each day has been linked to lower levels of LDL cholesterol by 5% and a risk of heart disease by 5% less (20).

Nuts and seeds

Nuts and seeds are rich in antioxidants, minerals and healthy fats. They have been associated with a reduced risk of premature death, heart disease and diabetes (21, 22).

One review found that 4 weekly servings of nuts were associated with a 28% lower risk of heart disease and a 22% lower risk of diabetes (22).

Whole grains

Whole grains contain many valuable nutrients, which include fiber, B vitamins and minerals such as iron, magnesium and selenium.

The consumption of whole grains has also been associated with protection against cancer, heart disease, diabetes and obesity (23).

Bottom line: The evidence supports the idea that the natural nutrients found in whole foods can prevent against a wide range of chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer and premature death.

Supplement studies have provided mixed results

Although it is clear that natural nutrients are associated with many health benefits, the evidence for synthetic supplements is mixed.


Some observational studies have found that the use of multivitamins is associated with a lower risk of heart disease and cancer (24, 25, 26, 27, 28).

However, other studies have not found any effect (29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34).

Some even link multivitamin use to increased Cancer risk (35, 36, 37, 38).

A large study analyzed the effects of a multivitamin at high doses on heart health. After almost 5 years, the study found that multivitamins had no beneficial effect (39).

However, several other studies have linked multivitamin supplements to improve memory in older adults (40, 41, 42, 43).

However, Physicians Health Study II found that 12 years of daily multivitamin use did not affect brain function or memory in men over 65 (44).

Individual and paired vitamins

One review found no clear evidence that individual or paired supplements benefit heart disease (45).

However, some previous studies suggest that B vitamins such as folic acid can improve brain function (46).

However, other solid studies report that dietary supplements, including B vitamins, do not improve brain function (47, 48).

Despite knowing that adequate levels of vitamin D are critical for good health and disease prevention, vitamin D supplements are also under much scrutiny (49, 50).

Vitamin D supplements have been linked to numerous benefits related to cancer, bone health and brain function, to name a few. However, experts agree that more evidence is needed (50, 51).

One thing that experts generally agree on is that vitamin D supplements, when combined with calcium, can improve bone health in the elderly (50).


Several reviews have found no evidence to support antioxidant supplements, including beta-carotene, vitamins A, C, E, and selenium (alone or in combination) to reduce the risk of death and cancer (52, 53).

In fact, it has been shown that beta-carotene supplements increase the risk of cancer in smokers (54).

However, antioxidant vitamins and minerals can help slow down the progression of the diseases that cause blindness. However, more research is needed (55, 56).

Bottom line: Studies on the beneficial health effects of many synthetic nutrients have been inconsistent, weak or have not shown any effect.

Should you take synthetic nutrients?

There is no clear evidence to suggest that most synthetic nutrients are beneficial for healthy, well-nourished people.

However, there are certain groups that can benefit from supplementation with synthetic nutrients. These include:

  • The elderly: This group tends to have a higher risk of vitamin D deficiency and may also need more vitamin B12 and calcium for bone health (57, 58).

  • Vegans and vegetarians: Because certain vitamins and minerals are found mainly in animal products, this group often has a high risk of vitamin B12 deficiency, calcium, zinc, iron and vitamin D (59, 60).

  • Pregnant and lactating women: It is possible that these women have to supplement their diet with additional vitamins and / or minerals (such as vitamin D) and avoid others (such as vitamin A) (61).

  • Women of childbearing age: This group is often recommended to take a folic acid supplement to reduce the risk of neural tube defects if they become pregnant. However, taking more than you need may have some risks.

  • People with nutritional deficiencies: Certain dietary supplements can treat nutritional deficiencies, such as iron supplements to treat iron deficiency anemia (62).

Bottom line: For certain groups of people at risk of nutritional deficiencies, certain synthetic supplements can be beneficial.

Synthetic nutrients can be downright harmful

In general, taking supplements according to the amounts indicated on the package is safe for most people.

However, the FDA does not review dietary supplements for safety and efficacy before they are marketed. Therefore, additional fraud may occur.

This means that the supplements may contain more or less nutrients than indicated on the label. Others may contain substances that are not listed on the label.

If you already consume a wide range of nutrients through your diet, taking additional supplements may exceed the recommended daily intake of many nutrients.

When taken in excess, water-soluble vitamins such as vitamin C and B vitamins are eliminated from the body through urine. However, fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E and K) can be stored in the body. This means that there is a risk that they accumulate at high levels, leading to hypervitaminosis.

Pregnant women should be especially careful with their intake of vitamin A, since excessive amounts have been linked to birth defects (63).

The results of many clinical trials show that beta-carotene, vitamin E, and possibly high doses of vitamin A may increase the risk of premature death (64, 65).

Other studies have linked the use of multivitamins with an increased risk of cancer, and iron supplements can be harmful for people who do not need them (66, 67, 68, 69).

There is also some evidence that synthetic folic acid is more harmful than natural folate in food. It can accumulate in the body and increase the risk of cancer (70, 71, 72).

Bottom line: Taking large amounts of synthetic nutrients can have harmful effects on health. The recommended daily doses are safe for most people, but caution is advised.

Bring the message home

Research shows constantly that synthetic nutrients are not a replacement for a healthy and balanced diet.

Obtaining natural nutrients from whole foods is always a better option.

However, if you really lack a specific nutrient, taking a supplement can be beneficial.

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