All About Where Vitamin Supplements Come From


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by Ryan Andrews

I don’t know about you, but ever since I swallowed my first Flintstones’ chewable, I envisioned vitamin supplements coming from a magical fairyland where wizards would squeeze all the nutrients from whole vegetables and fruits. Do you have these visions too?

People that use vitamin supplements likely start with good intentions. But where do these products actually come from? Are vitamin supplements any more natural than white flour or pharmaceuticals?

Where do vitamin supplements come from?

When people think of drugs, most think “artificial.” When people think of vitamin supplements, most think “natural.”

But both drugs and vitamin supplements can be artificial or natural. Many vitamin supplements produced today are artificial. Meanwhile, the world of “natural” isn’t all hopscotch tournaments and fairy dances. Poison hemlock, hallucinogenic mushrooms, rhubarb leaves and sprouted kidney beans are all natural – and potentially deadly.

There are six categories of nutrients used in the manufacturing of vitamin supplements.

1. Natural source

These include nutrients from vegetable, animal or mineral sources. But before making it into the supplement bottle, they undergo significant processing and refining. Examples include vitamin D from fish liver oils, vitamin E from vegetable oils, and natural beta-carotene.

When a vitamin is marked “natural”, it only has to include 10% of actual natural plant-derived ingredients. The other 90% could be synthetic.

Consider vitamin E tocopherols, which can be extracted from vegetable oils (often soybean, due to low costs).

  1. First, the soybeans are crushed and the protein is removed by precipitation.
  2. Second, the resultant oil is distilled off to become bottled vegetable oil.
  3. Third, the remaining materials are solubilized to remove any carbohydrates.
  4. Fourth, the vitamin E is solvent extracted away from the remaining waxes and lecithin.

Synthetic alpha-tocopherol is a combination of eight isomers, natural alpha-tocopherol is just one isomer, and consuming various isomers can decrease bioavailability.