For many Canadians, the pledge to get healthier in 2012 starts with a trip to the drug store to load up on vitamins and dietary supplements.
But they may not know those bottles of vitamin D, echinacea or glucosamine likely contain synthetic ingredients, added for a variety of reasons, such as binding pills together or giving them a certain colour, texture or taste.
Many researchers who study vitamins, and members of the medical community, say these ingredients, which can include magnesium stearate, a lubricant that keeps tablets from sticking to machinery, calcium carbonate, often used as a processing aid, or silica, which is used to add bulk to tablets, are perfectly safe.
But a vocal minority is questioning whether the millions of vitamins and supplements made with synthetic additives consumed by Canadians each year have serious health effects. They argue chemical ingredients aren’t meant for human consumption and that taking vitamins cooked up in a lab delivers nowhere close to the nutritional benefits of the real thing.
Critics in the naturopathic and organic communities take issue with vitamins that are produced using a chemical process, which they say block the body’s ability to properly absorb nutrients. The only vitamins people should be taking are those derived naturally from food or plant sources, they argue.
“The whole idea of a synthetic nutrient, it’s an oxymoron,” said Win Treadway, a naturopathic doctor and associate with the Organic Consumers Association, based in Finland, Minnesota. “It really doesn’t make sense.”
That position seems to be gaining traction after a growing amount of research, including a study published last October that found women who took multivitamins were more likely to die earlier than women who didn’t, has cast doubt on the usefulness of vitamins.
Is it time to re-evaluate laboratory-manufactured nutrients and supplements?
Technically, vitamins have been around forever as essential nutrients found in food. But it wasn’t until the 20th century that researchers were able to isolate and produce synthetic vitamins.
Now, Canada’s natural health-product industry is worth $3.5-billion, according to the Canadian Health Food Association, an industry group. The market is also expanding as more food companies add vitamin D, Omega 3 and other nutrients to products to boost their health profile.
But many naturopaths question the wisdom of increasing reliance on taking vitamins made in a lab with synthetic ingredients, arguing they are missing essential naturally-occurring components that are necessary to provide health benefits.
“I believe that our body recognizes the DNA from plants,” said Janine Bowring, naturopathic doctor and formulator for VitaTree Nutritionals, a company that sells supplements derived from natural sources. “If you’re going to ingest something, you should be educated as to what that is, where it came from and what it might be doing to your body in a positive or negative way.”
Dr. Bowring and others believe that vitamins created through chemical processes don’t allow for proper absorption because they exclude vital nutritional elements that can be found only in nature.
They also question the place of synthetic ingredients in vitamins. Joseph Mercola, the controversial physician who runs the popular health site Mercola.com, claims many common synthetic ingredients can cause a litany of health problems. For instance, he says magnesium stearate can damage the immune system.
Gary Leong, vice-president of scientific and technical affairs at Jamieson Laboratories, a major producer of vitamins and supplements, said synthetic ingredients are used in small amounts and that the company “utilizes the most natural ingredients we can find.”
Mr. Leong added that he believes vitamins created in a lab are the same as those found in nature, as long as they have the same chemical structure. But recognizing that consumers are seeking natural substances, the company now creates vitamins using a fermentation process that involves yeast and sugar beets.
Despite all the arguing, there is very little high-quality research that has analyzed whether such claims are true.
“I don’t have any particular concern [with synthetic ingredients]” said Susan Whiting, professor of nutrition in the College of Pharmacy and Nutrition at the University of Saskatchewan. “The poison is in the dose and so you can make a case for lots of things being harmful, but it depends how much [you’re consuming]”
Dr. Whiting said she’s much more concerned with issues related to misleading information, such as vitamins that don’t contain the active ingredients as claimed on their labels, a serious issue that has emerged in the United States.
Brent Bauer, director of the complementary and integrative medicine program at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., said in an e-mail that the debate largely misses the point that most people don’t need to take vitamins and should instead focus on their diet.
If you eat the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables each day, it’s unlikely you’ll benefit from taking supplements. At the same time, Dr. Bauer wrote, “if you are eating junk food all day, it is a pipe dream that popping a multivitamin is somehow going to compensate for that fact and magically protect your health.”