Many people don’t get enough nutrients from the diet alone (1).
However, there has been much debate over whether synthetic nutrients provide the same benefits as natural nutrients.
Some sources even suggest that synthetic nutrients may be dangerous.
This article takes an objective look at the science on synthetic and natural nutrients.
What Are Synthetic and Natural Nutrients?
Here’s the difference between natural and synthetic nutrients:
- Natural nutrients: These are obtained from whole food sources in the diet.
- Synthetic nutrients: Also referred to as isolated nutrients, these are usually made artificially, in an industrial process.
Synthetic nutrients do not include “whole food supplements,” which are made from concentrated, dehydrated whole foods.
The majority of supplements available on the market today are made artificially. These include vitamins, antioxidants, minerals and amino acids, among others.
They can be taken in pill, capsule, tablet, powder or liquid form, and are made to mimic the way natural nutrients act in our bodies.
To figure out if your supplement is synthetic or natural, check the label. Natural supplements usually list food sources or are labeled as 100% plant or animal-based.
Supplements that list nutrients individually, such as vitamin C, or use chemical names like ascorbic acid, are almost certainly synthetic.
Bottom Line: Synthetic nutrients are dietary supplements made artificially in a laboratory setting or industrial process. Natural nutrients are those found in whole foods.
Are Natural and Synthetic Nutrients Different?
The accepted view is that synthetic nutrients are almost chemically identical to those found in food.
However, the production process of synthetic nutrients is very different to the way plants and animals create them. So despite having a similar structure, your body may react differently to synthetic nutrients.
Additionally, it’s unclear how well synthetic nutrients are absorbed and used in the body. Some may be more easily absorbed, not others (3).
Without these additional compounds, synthetic nutrients are unlikely to be used by the body 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 unclear how well synthetic nutrients are absorbed and used in the body. Your body will use nutrients best when taken in whole food form, with a wide variety of food compounds.
Nutrients in Whole Foods Have Health Benefits
Natural whole foods may help manage and prevent heart disease, diabetes, cancer and early death.
These benefits have been linked 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 thought to be responsible for many health benefits.
One review found that for each daily portion of fruit or vegetables consumed, the risk of heart disease decreased by 4–7% (11).
One study of more than 40,000 males aged 40–75 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 soluble fiber content and the wide range of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants in beans and legumes may help reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers (17, 18, 19).
Eating one serving of legumes like beans, peas and chickpeas each day has been linked to 5% lower LDL cholesterol levels and a 5-6% lower risk of heart disease (20).
Nuts and Seeds
One review found that 4 weekly servings of nuts was linked to a 28% lower risk of heart disease, and 22% lower risk of diabetes (22).
Whole grains contain many valuable nutrients, including fiber, B vitamins and minerals such as iron, magnesium and selenium.
Whole grain consumption has also been associated with protection against cancer, heart disease, diabetes and obesity (23).
Bottom Line: Evidence supports the idea that 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’s clear that natural nutrients are associated with many health benefits, the evidence for synthetic supplements is mixed.
One large study looked into the effects of a high-dose multivitamin on heart health. After almost 5 years, the study found that multivitamins had no beneficial effect (39).
Nevertheless, the Physicians’ Health Study II found that 12 years of daily multivitamin use did not affect brain function or memory for men over 65 (44).
Single and Paired Vitamins
One review found no clear evidence that single or paired supplements benefit heart disease (45).
One thing experts generally agree on is that vitamin D supplements, when combined with calcium, can improve bone health in older people (50).
Several reviews have found no evidence to support antioxidant supplements, including beta-carotene, vitamins A, C, E, and selenium (alone or in combination) for reduced risk of death and cancer (52, 53).
In fact, beta-carotene supplements have been shown to increase the risk of cancer in smokers (54).
Bottom Line: Studies about the beneficial health effects of many synthetic nutrients have been inconsistent, weak or shown no 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 who may benefit from supplementing with synthetic nutrients. These include:
- The elderly: This group tends to be at a higher risk of vitamin D deficiency and may also need more vitamin B12 and calcium for bone health (57, 58).
- Vegans and vegetarians: As certain vitamins and minerals are found mainly in animal products, this group is often at a high risk of deficiency for vitamin B12, calcium, zinc, iron and vitamin D (59, 60).
- Pregnant and breastfeeding women: These women may have to supplement their diet with extra vitamins and/or minerals (such as vitamin D) and avoid others (such as vitamin A) (61).
- Women of childbearing age: This group is often encouraged to take a folic acid supplement to reduce the risk of neural tube defects if they do become pregnant. However, taking more than you need may have some risks.
- People with nutrient deficiencies: Certain dietary supplements may treat nutritional deficiencies, such as iron supplements for treating iron deficiency anaemia (62).
Bottom Line: For certain groups of people at risk of nutritional deficiencies, certain synthetic supplements can be beneficial.
Synthetic Nutrients May be Downright Harmful
In general, taking supplements according to the amounts directed on the package is safe for most people.
However, the FDA does not review dietary supplements for safety and effectiveness before they are marketed. Therefore, supplement fraud can occur.
This means that supplements can contain more or less nutrients than stated on the label. Others may contain substances not listed on the label.
If you already consume a wide range of nutrients through your diet, taking extra supplements can exceed the recommended daily intake of many nutrients.
When taken in excess, water-soluble vitamins like vitamin C and B vitamins are flushed out of the body through your urine.
However, fat-soluble vitamins — vitamins A, D, E, and K — may be stored in the body. This means that there is a risk of them accumulating to high levels, leading to hypervitaminosis.
Pregnant women need to be especially careful with their vitamin A intake, as excess amounts have been linked to birth defects (63).
Bottom Line: Taking large amounts of synthetic nutrients can have harmful health effects. Recommended daily doses are safe for most people, but caution is advised.
Take Home Message
Research consistently shows that synthetic nutrients are no replacement for a healthy, balanced diet.
Getting natural nutrients from whole foods is always a better option.
However, if you are truly lacking in a specific nutrient, then taking a supplement can be beneficial.