Natural and Synthetic Vitamins
The vitamins which make up the vitamin B complex can be found in sufficient quantities in many foods. When it is suspected that the correct amount of B vitamins cannot be absorbed through the diet due to higher stress levels, an unbalanced diet or absorption disorders, dietary supplements are designed to provide an equivalent to the vitamin B complex.
Some experts doubt this, however, since the chemical form of the naturally occurring B vitamins is quite different to the synthetically produced vitamins which can be found in most vitamin B complex supplements. Not only do these chemicals rarely occur naturally, but these supplements also lack the diverse co-factors which typically emerge naturally in association with these vitamins in foods. Certain critics even believe that vitamins should not be seen as isolated substances, but rather as closely cooperative drug complexes, which explains why vitamins as synthetic, isolated chemicals do not behave the same way as their naturally occurring relatives and can sometimes even be dangerous.
This view can be considered extreme, as there have been hardly any studies in this field thus far. Admittedly, it is accepted that many vitamins are dependent on numerous other nutrients in order to be effective, yet the huge success of vitamin therapy with synthetic supplements that have been seen in some cases certainly demonstrates that the isolated, synthetic forms can undoubtedly have a very healthy effect. Whether natural vitamins together with their co-factors could have an even more impressive effect is at present unknown, as it has not been researched for B vitamins in comparable studies. It remains equally unclear as to why synthetic vitamins can have long term side effects, which are intimidating in some cases.
Natural B Complex Vitamins from Foods
The idea of extracting vitamin directly out of natural food forms initially seems the most obvious, but for manufacturers of the vitamin supplements, synthetic vitamins have many clear advantages: due to their chemical processes, they can be produced at consistent quality, to arbitrary higher dosages, whilst being easier and cheaper to produce than natural vitamins and more chemically stable.
Despite this, the growing concerns of many consumers and vitamin experts regarding synthetic vitamins in recent years led to some producers offering B vitamins as natural plant extracts, in which the vitamin complex is readily available alongside its co-factors. Such supplements are now widely available on the market, but which use very different methods.
It is extremely rare that a vitamin is actually extracted from foods such as vegetables, sprouts, herbs and fruits, since this involves a relatively complex means of extraction. Here, a carrier plant is grown from other plant extracts in a biological nutrient solution. Specific peptides are then added to the solution, which convert the vitamins and transport them through the cells of the plant. As soon as this is achieved, the plant is harvested and the cell content is extracted. The method in total produces herbal, mostly organically grown ingredients. Vitamin B12, which doesn’t occur in plants, is either cultivated using microorganisms or added as a coenzyme. This style of supplement is known as a ‘whole-food vitamin’, and is only offered by a handful of producers worldwide.
It is much more common practice to use biocultures of yeast and probiotics in connection with specialized nutrient solutions, which contain synthetic vitamins or their components and precursors. The yeast absorbs the vitamins, which enriches it. The vitamins can then be harvested as a herbal product, which thus contains natural, renaturated vitamins which meet all food standard practices.
As a third category, there are supplements which contain a mix of synthetic vitamins, additionally enriched with herbal extracts of certain plants which contain these vitamins naturally. The philosophy behind this is to offer the body the natural nutrient spectrum with all co-factors, instead of just the chemically isolated vitamins, whilst at the same time avoiding the methods described above and to retain simpler control over the dosage of vitamins.
B Vitamins in their Coenzyme Forms
Some producers take a different approach. Instead of using the isolated, artificial forms of B complex vitamins, which don’t occur in nature or in our bodies, they use the activated coenzyme forms of the vitamins, just as they are metabolized by the body. Admittedly, these vitamins are also artificially produced and isolated, but they always have a bioidentical form and can thus be used directly by our body.
The B vitamins in their artificial forms, by contrast, must first be activated by the body, in order to fulfil their function. This process often requires several metabolic steps, which in turn are dependent on numerous other nutrients which are partly removed from the body. This represents a metabolic loss and also assumes that all the necessary factors are always readily available.
Additionally, the many isolated vitamins have to be stabilized through auxiliaries like hydrochloride (B1, B6) or cyanide (B12). Thus, thiamine hydrochloride (thiamin-HCl) is present as vitamin B1 in many B complex supplements and cyanocobalamin as vitamin B12 – forms which do not occur in foods, nor within the body in any significant amounts and forms which cannot be used directly. Almost all vitamins have similar cases.
The use of the coenzyme forms, therefore, theoretically has several advantages:
- It can be administered as a direct, bioavailable form, which the body can use without conversion
Additional metabolic steps are unnecessary
The dependency on other nutrients is minimalized
The coenzyme forms are sometimes produced in a cleaner and purer way than their isolated alternatives (e.g. vitamin B6)
A further possibility is the use of natural vitamin precursors, which can be quickly converted into the effective vitamin within the body. To stay with the example of vitamin B1, benfotiamin is sometimes used here, a fat soluble precursor of vitamin B1, which differs from water soluble vitamin B1 as the absorption is 5-7 times higher.1
Vitamin B Complex and Coenzyme
Here is an overview of the artificial forms and bioavailable coenzyme forms:
Vitamin Precursor /Alternative Form
Thiamine HCl, Thiamin Mononitrate
Thiamin Diphosphate, Cocarboxylase (Thiamin Pyrophosphate)
Riboflavin 5’-phosphate, / Flavin mononucleotide (FMN)
Niacin, Nicotinic Acid
Niacinamide, Nicotinamide Diphosphate/Nicotinamide Adenine Dinucleotide (NAD), Nicotinamide Adenine Dinucleotide Phosphate (NADP+), Nicotinamide Diphosphate Hydrate/Nicotinamide Adenine Dinucleotide Hydrid (NADH)
Inositol Nicotinate, Inositol Hexaniacinate, lnositol Hexanicotinate
B5 (Pantothenic Acid)
Pantothenic Acid, Pantothenate, Calcium-D-Pantothenate
D-Pantothenic Acid, Pantethine, 4′-Phosphopantetheine
Pyridoxine, Pyridoxine HCl
B9 (Folic Acid)
Folic Acid, Pteroylmonoglutamic Acid,
Folate, 5-formyltetrahydrofolate, 5-methyltetrahydrofolate/5-MTHF, L-Methylfolate Calcium (Metafolin®)
Unfortunately, at present there is a lack of reliable, scientific research into this topic. Sufficient studies into vitamin B12 and folic acid show a tendency of slight advantages when using coenzyme forms, but these are the only studies with enough depth which currently available. Due to the missing scientific studies into the natural B vitamins, the decision as to which active ingredient to opt for can be left to personal feeling and common sense.
In our view, it is more than plausible that our body is optimally adapted to natural nutrients through evolution. As a result of this, the body’s vitamin requirement should be covered with fresh foods and nutrients wherever possible. When this is not possible, we consider it important to give preference to supplements which are closer to nature – ideally, supplements containing only extracts from natural food sources, or those which use vitamin forms that actually occur in the body.
1 Schreeb, K.H. et al, Comparative bioavailability of two vitamin B1 preparations: benfotiamine and thiamine mononitrate, Eur J Clin Pharmacol. 1997;52(4):319–320; PMID 9248773.