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Synthetic or Natural – Who wants to know?

Synthetic products can be good. Technology continues to march forward, and for some applications that can be a good thing. Synthetic motor oil lasts longer – oil changes are needed every 10,000 miles vs. 3,000 miles. Synthetic grass allows our favorite sports teams to always play on a consistently colored and textured surface. Faux fur, at one time, was considered an embarrassment to wear. Today, many celebrities and gala attendees ridicule real fur and chastise those that wear it. The common thread in these examples is that the consumer knows they’re synthetic and can decide if they want the artificial option or the real thing.

In the dietary supplement industry, synthetic vitamins and supplements are increasingly being sold as identical to ingredients extracted or harvested naturally from plants. Synthetic vitamins and supplements are manufactured with chemicals as their starting material. The intended result of the synthetic product manufacturer is to provide a creation that mimics the way natural vitamins or supplements act in our bodies.

Some synthetic supplement manufacturers claim their chemical creation is “nature identical” to the product derived from plant material. In almost every case some difference exists. In every case, the synthetic manufacturer claims their product benefit is the same as that manufactured from a plant source. The synthetic manufacturer claims the efficacy of the ingredient must be the same because the products are so similar in chemical structure. The synthetic ingredient creator inappropriately extrapolates the plant based compound science to support synthetic materials. The synthetic ingredient manufacturer, who has more recently begun production, often cites the safety of their nearly identical creation based upon the safety record established from plant-based ingredients which, in some cases, have been around at least as long as humans. If this is true, then why aren’t they disclosing it?

One of the most historical and studied cases of the discussion between synthetic and natural vitamins is found in vitamin E. Natural vitamin E was identified as a substance almost one hundred years ago. Its synthetic counterpart was created less than half that many years ago. Both products have found a place in our food chain, but the extensive science conducted on both forms confirms the natural form of vitamin E is much more useful to the human body than is the synthetic form. The vast majority of the synthetic version of vitamin E is used in animal feed additive while almost all the natural form of vitamin E is used in human food and supplements. In the case of vitamin E, the manufacturers are required to label the natural form of vitamin E as D-alpha tocopherol, and the synthetic creation is required to be listed as DL-alpha tocopherol. While the letter L after the D on the label is the only required signal to the consumer that the vitamin E they are purchasing is natural or synthetic, it is at least something. Often the manufacturer will state the product is natural on the label, but that is not always the case. One of the largest and respected supplement manufacturers, NOW Foods, states on their website: “All of our vitamin E is the all natural d-alpha form (as in d-alpha tocopherol).

In other vitamins and supplements, the history of the synthetic product is much more recent, and no label differentiation is required to designate the natural or synthetic form of the ingredient. Astaxanthin, a powerful antioxidant and “the king of carotenoids,” is one such ingredient. Like Vitamin E, almost all the synthetic astaxanthin is used in animal feed additive, including fish. The animal feed astaxanthin is typically used as a meat colorant in aquaculture and most noticeably with salmon to give a more vibrant red color to the salmon we eat. Synthetic astaxanthin is not studied to any significant degree in humans and because it uses petrochemicals as the starting material, is not allowed in any form in many parts of the world. Increasingly, the consumer demand for “clean ingredients” and “clean labels” is banning the use of synthetic astaxanthin in United States restaurants and groceries. Panera Bread has banned the use of synthetic astaxanthin in food sold in any of its stores as evidenced by its commitment to a “No No List” posted on its website.

The most human studied and human consumed astaxanthin is derived from algae. A group of astaxanthin ingredient manufacturers which provide astaxanthin derived from the algae Haematococcus pluvialis came together to form the Natural Algae Astaxanthin Association (“NAXA”) with the expressed intent of promoting awareness of the difference between synthetic and natural astaxanthin and the extensive science supporting the latter. NAXA also began to have independent labs randomly test retail product bought from store shelves to ensure product labeled as astaxanthin derived from Haematococcus pluvialis and no synthetic astaxanthin was used in the product. NAXA found most, but not all, retail products were accurately labeled. NAXA has developed and offered a NAXA Verified Program Seal to be included on the labels to those products that were verified through the independent testing. The NAVP Seal is found in categories including cosmetics, human supplement and pet nutrition.

There are some bad players in our industry poisoning the water for all of us when they use counterfeiting, mislabeling, adulteration and information omission. With the power of the internet, the consumer can research the products they buy or consume more thoroughly than any time in history. Transparent merchants and quality manufacturers are more present than their less scrupulous counterparts. It is up to us as consumers to determine the difference between fact and fake. Synthetic is not a bad thing if we know what we are buying and the purchase decision is one of informed consent.

~Scott Steinford, Managing Partner, Trust Transparency Consulting