Let's play a word association game, shall we? I say "vitamin," you say what? "Health nut"? "Wheat grass"? After all, you walk down a vitamin aisle and assume everything's natural, no?
Well, one organization south of the border is shaking up our local alt health allies by warning consumers that most of what they're swallowing is far removed from nature and that the industry is, in fact, filling its products with synthetic ingredients. Now the controversial questions swirling through the aether are, what constitutes synthetics and are they necessarily a bad thing?
Way back when, vitamin poppers were mostly carrot juice junkies and bodybuilders, but these days 75 per cent of Canadians take some sort of supplement to augment our dilapidated diets. That's a fair number of people that Ronnie Cummins, director of the Minnesota-based Organic Consumers Association (OCA), says are being misled about what they're consuming.
"There is a gigantic hoax being foisted on the public. [Vitamin makers] don't want the public to know that not only are vitamins not organic, but they're spiking most of them with synthetic vitamins and minerals."
The OCA, which has 850,000 members in the U.S. and Canada, recently launched a campaign on the issue called Nutri-Con. The group suspects that 95 per cent of vitamins consist of some degree of synthetics, ingredients that Cummins says "your body rejects as synthetic invaders" and that should be labelled for all to see.
It's a notion that's been gaining attention in health food circles for some time. Several alt websites slam synthetic vitamin C (aka ascorbic acid) for being less bioavailable to the body than C extracted from, say, berries augmented with bioflavonoids. Ascorbic acid, goes the line, is so inadequate, it won't even cure scurvy (though the Mayo Clinic says otherwise). Even the mainstream allopathic community has noted that synthetic vitamin E is a poor substitute for the real thing and does little to boost your health.
Ultimately, it's all part of the growing recognition of an old-fashioned notion - that food is our best source for nutrients and that vitamins can't save you from a junky diet. Riding that wave are food-based vitamin lines made from a grocery basket of dehydrated fruits and veggies. Plant-based pills like Greens+ are all the rage, and nearly every supplement maker is throwing grasses and berries into the mix.
Still, not everyone in the alternative health community is championing the trend in its entirity. Aileen Burford-Mason, president of the Holistic Health Research Foundation of Canada (an org that funds research supporting alternative modalities), is happy to see a move away from ineffective forms of synthetic vitamins like E and D, but cautions against damning all synthetics. Most, she says, are bioidentical and well absorbed by the body, while some are actually better absorbed than natural forms.
Case in point: folic acid. "Some people genetically are not equipped to cleave the folate out of food and convert it to folic acid. It's only well utilized by about 70 per cent of the population. But there is a synthetic form called methyltetrahydrofolate that 100 per cent of people can use."
It's valuable info Burford-Mason gives her pregnant patients, who take folic acid to lower the risk of birth defects.
She also warns against seeing food-based vitamins as the panacea for promoting optimal health. "I get people coming into my office who are taking so-called food-form vitamins and minerals from natural plant sources. Very often they're completely inadequate, and you can tell that just by finding out what symptoms people have." Adds Burford-Mason, "If [those food-based vitamins] were adequate, patients wouldn't have symptoms that can be cured with other supplements."
A call to the Big Carrot elicits another measured take on the debate. Julie Daniluk, the Carrot's nutritional consultant, supports the idea of labelling products to give consumers more info, but says food-based supplements aren't in every person's price range (high-end multis cost up to $65 for a two-month supply) and aren't available in the higher doses needed to treat particular diseases or ailments.
"A lot of whole food advocates, including myself, say absorption rates are higher [with food-based supplements] since they're bound with natural chelation elements, so you won't necessarily need as much." But Daniluk adds that "someone who's schizophrenic requires extremely high doses of niacin." Another customer's suicidal depression cleared up with high doses of B6 - again, not readily available in a natural form.
However, Scott Treadway, a researcher on the book The Vitamin Myth Exposed, which inspired the Organic Consumers Association's campaign, says he and the OCA aren't interested in having synthetics banned or removed from shelves, but aim to clear up retail confusion.
"The main thing is that consumers should know whether these things are synthetic or not, and [this info] should be on the label. The industry needs to step up and adopt naturally-occurring standards for supplements that will force companies to admit what they're doing and give the consumer a choice."
In fact, Treadway is a member of the newly developed Naturally Occurring Standards Group, which is working with the OCA to set up such a system.
Vitamin manufacturers are clearly not thrilled about the prospect. "[The campaign is] implying that synthetic vitamins come from chemicals," says Neil Levin, nutrition education manager with Now Foods, a supplement maker. But synthetic vitamin C, for instance, is often extracted from corn or cornstarch, then lab-altered for potency.
"For them to use the word 'synthetic' and imply that it's something completely artificial and far removed from what's in plants or your own body is false in many cases. It's true for vitamin E, but they're taking that and twisting it beyond recognition and implying it's true of other things."
Nonetheless, plenty of health-heads would opt to stay away from synthetics if they had the choice, especially since many supplement brands source such vitamins, in part, from Big Pharma suppliers.
If the standard marches ahead, the question is, will anybody be able to meet it? From the look of it, many food-based vitamins won't. Greens+ basic plant-based powders (made by Toronto-based Genuine Health) should pass the test, but its other products tend to contain synthetics like vitamin K, taken to increase bone density.
California-based Rainbow Light, which makes a line of so-called food-based vitamins from natural and synthetic sources, says the standard is impossible to meet. "It's very difficult to make a multivitamin product that will be truly 100 per cent food-sourced without any synthetic ingredients," says Rainbow's director of technical services, Marci Clow.
No matter who says what, ultimately the battle will be decided in the health store checkout lines. Health Canada, for the moment, is staying out of this one.