Natural and Synthetic Vitamins
The vitamins that make up the vitamin B complex can be found in sufficient quantities in many foods. If 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 malabsorption – dietary supplements are designed to provide an equivalent to the vitamin B complex.
Some experts question the efficacy of B complex supplements, however, since the chemical form of the naturally occurring B vitamins is quite different to the synthetically produced vitamins found in most supplements. Not only do these chemicals rarely occur naturally, but supplements also tend to lack the diverse cofactors which typically emerge naturally in association with these vitamins in foods. Certain critics even argue that vitamins should not be seen as isolated substances, but rather as closely-interrelated complexes, which explains why vitamins as synthetic, isolated chemicals do not behave the same way as their naturally occurring counterparts and can sometimes even be harmful.
This opinion can be considered extreme, as there have been hardly any studies on this subject to date. Admittedly, it is accepted that many vitamins are dependent on numerous other nutrients in order to be effective, yet the documented major successes of vitamin therapy with synthetic supplements certainly demonstrate that the isolated, synthetic forms can undoubtedly have positive health effects. Whether natural vitamins together with their cofactors could have an even more impressive impact is unknown at present, as there have been no comparable studies. It is also unclear as to what extent synthetic vitamins could have long-term side effects, as some fear.
Natural B Complex Vitamins from Foods
The idea of extracting vitamins directly out of natural foods initially seems life the most obvious process. For supplement manufacturers however, synthetic vitamins have clear advantages: they can be produced by chemical processes in a constant quality, at any dosage, simpler and cheaper than natural vitamins and are chemically much more stable.
Despite this, the growing concerns of many consumers and vitamin experts regarding synthetic vitamins have led some manufacturers to offer B vitamins as natural plant extracts in recent years, in which the vitamin complex is readily available alongside its co-factors. Such supplements are now widely available on the market, but there are multiple, very different methods used.
It is extremely rare that a vitamin is actually extracted from foods such as vegetables, sprouts, herbs and fruits, since a relatively complex means of extraction is required. 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. Only plant ingredients, mostly organically grown, are used in the entire process. Vitamin B12, which does not naturally 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.
Biocultures of yeasts and probiotics in combination with special nutrient solutions containing synthetic vitamins or their components and precursors are much more frequently used. Here the yeast absorbs the vitamins which enrich it. The vitamins can then be harvested as a plant product, which thus contains natural, renaturalised vitamins which meet all food standard practices.
As a third category, there are supplements which contain a mix of synthetic vitamins and certain plant extracts which naturally contain these vitamins. The philosophy behind this is to offer the body the natural nutrient spectrum with all cofactors, instead of just the chemically-isolated vitamins, whilst at the same time avoiding the methods described above and keeping a simpler control over the dosage of vitamins.
Coenzyme Forms of the B Vitamins
Some manufacturers take a different approach: instead of using the isolated, artificial forms of B complex vitamins, which do not occur in naturally; they use the activated coenzyme forms of the vitamins, as they are metabolised by the body. Although these vitamins are also produced and isolated artificially, they have a bioidentical form and can thus be used directly in the body.
The B vitamins in their artificial forms, by contrast, must first be “activated” by the body to fulfil their functions. 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 cofactors are always readily available.
Additionally, many isolated vitamins have to be stabilised through auxiliaries like hydrochloride (B1, B6) or cyanide (B12). Vitamin B1, for example, is present in many B complex supplements as thiamine hydrochloride (thiamine HCl) and B12 as cyanocobalamin – forms that do not occur significantly in food or in the human body and cannot be directly utilised. This is very similar with almost all vitamins.
Therefore, the use of the coenzyme forms has several theoretical 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 minimalised
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 B1, which differs from water-soluble B1 as the absorption is 5-7 times higher (1).
Vitamin B Complex and Coenzymes
Here is an overview of the artificial forms and bioavailable coenzyme forms:
Vitamin Precursor /Alternative Form
Thiamine HCl, thiamine mononitrate
Thiamine diphosphate, cocarboxylase (thiamine 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 hydride (NADH)
Inositol nicotinate, inositol hexaniacinate, inositol 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 on this topic. Only for folic acid and vitamin B12 are there enough studies that tend to show a slight advantage towards the coenzyme forms. Due to the missing scientific studies into the natural B vitamins, the decision as to which active ingredient to opt for must be based on personal feelings and common sense.
In our opinion, it is more than plausible that our body is optimally adapted to natural nutrients through evolution. If possible, the body’s vitamin requirement should therefore be covered with fresh foods. If this is not possible, we believe that preference should be given to supplements which are as close to nature as possible – ideally, supplements containing ingredients extracted from natural food sources or those which use vitamin forms that are actually found in the human body.
- 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.