What are the best supplements – synthetic or whole food? Mammalian physiology has not changed much in the “modern” evolutionary window, so nutritional requirements for adequate health maintenance have changed little in the last several centuries.

However, sources of nutrition have undergone a radical shift caused by the unintended consequences of population growth, and the development of modern scientific production methods to enhance our foods. Soil nutrients are depleted. Without adequate renewal of the soil through sustainable farming techniques, the quality of food has declined. Modern agricultural development, especially through the introduction of genetically modified foods, has also drastically altered the quality of food being grown today.

Early nutritional research The new field of research for synthetic vitamins began because soil depletion was leading to less than adequate foods, along with modern food processing and production. Early research was conducted with extracts and concentrates of vitamins obtained from natural, food-based sources. The production of synthetic vitamins began with the synthesis of vitamin C in 1928 by Szent-Gyorgyi.1 The intention of early nutritional researchers was to produce synthetic, concentrated forms of vitamins to supplement less than adequate diets. The fortification of diets, especially animal diets, with synthetic vitamins is standard operating practice in food production today. But are synthetic vitamins the same as those found in the original whole foods which dogs, cats and horses ate? The answer is resoundingly “no”.

A vitamin is a group of complex organic compounds present in minute amounts in natural foods. Vitamins are essential to normal metabolism and their lack causes deficiency diseases.1 Classification is based on function, not structure.1 Vitamins are catalysts for the biochemical reactions necessary to maintain cellular maintenance and reproduction. They serve as co-factors in multiple enzyme pathways. For example, riboflavin (vitamin B2) is involved in over 100 enzymatic reactions. Other vitamins may have fewer activities, yet are essential to normal cellular function. Hence, a functional deficiency of the vitamin complex will result in a dysfunctional cellular response (disease) or outright cellular death.

Consider vitamin C

We are taught (erroneously) that vitamins are chemicals – for example, vitamin C is legally defined as ascorbic acid and folic acid as pterolyglutamic acid. In naturally occurring whole food forms, vitamin C is a complex of molecules with many functions. Folacin has more biologic forms in foods than any other known vitamin. What is the difference?

Let us consider vitamin C. Ascorbic acid is a single, naked molecule synthesized by processing glucose (corn syrup – and most corn is now GMO) with sulfuric acid to produce the hexuronic acid form. In whole foods, the vitamin C complex is much more than one molecule. To function properly, more than ascorbic acid is needed. Tyrosinase is an enzyme activated by a bivalent copper atom (Cu++). Tyrosinase is essential for the production of the oxidative burst in white blood cells that destroys engulfed pathogens. Tyrosinase is also essential in the production of steroid hormones in the adrenal cortex, among other functions.2,3 Surrounding the core of tyrosinase are the bioflavonoids and P factors. These components of the vitamin C complex support production and maintenance of collagen and elastin.2 Initially, the ascorbic acid was thought to prevent scurvy, but subsequent investigation with improved laboratory procedures demonstrated that another element in the vitamin C complex actually alleviated scurvy. This led to the recognition of the bioflavinoids and P factors.2 Further research showed that the vitamin C complex also included some vitamin K activity and hemoglobin production co-factors, designated J factors.

A vitamin needs all the co-factors to function properly. It is a complex of activities defined by function, not chemical description. The elements of this complex of bioactive molecules are susceptible to oxidation, so the plants that produce vitamin C enclose the active constituents with a shell of ascorbic acid. Ascorbic acid is a functional component of the vitamin complex but only comprises five to eight percent of the actual vitamin complex.2 Ascorbic acid is the marker molecule used to identify vitamin C activity and the presence of vitamin C in a food source. Isolated ascorbic acid is not vitamin C, except by legal definition.

Nature’s shell This duality of description exists throughout nutritional research. In order to identify the presence of a functional vitamin, a specific marker is employed in analysis. The isolated marker, however, does not necessarily indicate the level of activity and function of the vitamin in the foodstuff. Because vitamins are elements of living foods, processing (heat, etc.) and time (oxidation) both reduce the functional level of vitamin activity in foods. Nature attempts to protect vitamin complexes by wrapping them in a shell of antioxidant activity or providing them in a stable form in the food which must then be activated by the consumer.

1. Ascorbic acid is the protective shell. It is also used by the consuming species as an antioxidant but that is not its primary function to the consumer.

2. The vitamin E complex in wheat germ oil is a rich complex of fatty acids essential to the production of steroid hormones (antisterility), lipid membrane integrity, and the source of ubiquinone. Eight layers of tocopherols and tocotrienols wrap around these volatile fatty acids to protect them from oxidation.3 Modern nutritional science merely measures the levels of alpha tocopherol as an indicator of vitamin E activity because it is easy to measure and produce from soybean oil (again a major GMO crop).

3. Thiamine (B1) and other vitamins are found in plants in a stable form that serves as a source of the pre-vitamin.Thiamine must undergo two trans-methylation reactions to be converted into cocarboxylase for mammalian use. This conversion requires methyl donors and other co-factors to occur efficiently. Plant sources grown on healthy soil provide all the co-factors for a mammal to convert the stable plant pre-vitamin form to the active form it needs. Pre-vitamins in food sources are like epoxy kits; you mix the components and get a product that must be used or it will degrade. Synthetic B vitamins are often extracted from crude oil products during distillation, but the living complex of co-factors is destroyed.

These distinctions between the naked molecule versus the whole food vitamin with its co-factors, pre-vitamins and other synergistic components are key to successful use of supplements in your veterinary practice and your own personal health.

Synthetic vitamins only work to a point It seems synthetic vitamins do help our patients, at least initially. Our cells can actually take a naked molecule and draw the necessary co-factors from reserves in other areas of the body. A thiamine molecule can be utilized so long as the body has the methyl donors and mineral co-factors available to accomplish its conversion to cocarboxylase. Once the co-factors are depleted, the synthetic vitamin can no longer work. Many times, in both animals and people, the benefits appear to diminish or disappear after several months. The return or worsening of symptoms is viewed as a reoccurrence of the original condition. Instead, the body had exhausted its supply of co-factors and simply cannot process the chemicals (synthetic vitamins) it was ingesting. Because it is now deficient in that vitamin, even more serious conditions may result.

Early research at UC Berkeley by Alice Faye Morgan PhD (from the letters of Dr. Royal Lee) demonstrated that dogs fed a generally deficient diet supplemented with either thiamin or niacin developed physiologic disorders more rapidly than dogs fed a diet balanced in its nutritional deficiencies. The conclusions were that when vitamin co-factors were exhausted by the administration of high doses (ten milligrams) of these B vitamins, the entire system suffered from the lack of these co-factors. A body has epigenetic mechanisms designed to cope with starvation, high stress levels and other environmental challenges. However, these mechanisms are based on the balanced function of the enzymatic systems in cells. When one factor is super abundant and another is deficient, it presents a challenge that was not present from an evolutionary standpoint, and leads to dysfunction.

The importance of right and left Another issue in the production of synthetic vitamins lies in the nature of chemical reactions. In a living system, molecules (such as vitamins) are produced with either a right (D form) or left (L form) optical rotation. The chemical composition of the two forms is identical, but the structures are mirror images, just like right and left handed gloves. Cells can generally only use one form of the vitamin in their enzymatic function. The majority of amino acids, for example, operate in the L form (L-arginine, L-tryptophan). Foods provide the correct rotation to which cells have adapted. The enantiomer (reverse form) of the natural vitamin can competitively inhibit the utilization of the form of the vitamin that the cell needs. In synthetic chemical reactions, the D and L forms will be produced in more or less equal amounts. Thus a synthetic vitamin which has not been separated into its D and L factors prior to formulation (a step that raises cost and labor) will be predictably less effective than a concentrate of the form found in whole foods.

Whole food vitamins are alive Yet another element of whole food vitamins and their interactions with living cells lies in the vibrational frequency of the food source. Cells, as living organisms, operate at certain energy levels. The integral membrane proteins that serve as receptors in the cell membranes vibrate at certain frequencies. A prime example of this is the function of the insulin receptors in the cell wall.16 The molecules must work together to perform their function. Synthetic chemicals do not vibrate with the electromagnetic frequencies of living foods, hence cells cannot utilize them as effectively as a whole food source of the vitamin. In Minerals for the Genetic Code, Dr. Richard Olree demonstrates that the expression of the genetic codon for arginine depends on activation by a Se-2 atom, as found in healthy plants. The other forms of selenium found in pure in mineral extracts (Se+6 and Se+4) produce an altered transcription, which results in an aberrated protein. The valence of a single atom can affect the outcome of a living process. Whole food vitamins are alive and electromagnetically compatible. Synthetic chemicals are not.

In summary, naturally occurring whole foods grown in healthy soil produce a quality of nutrition that cannot be reproduced artificially. It’s not nice to fool with Mother Nature. The work by Dr. Morgan demonstrated that artificial supplementation can actually be more harmful than helpful. The practice of mixing some whole food powders with chemical vitamins is an attempt to correct the problems created by pure synthetics. However, common sense would dictate that a whole food source is more effectively utilized than a blend of chemicals and foods that have not yet been digested and processed by the body. Animals evolved eating real food – how can we improve upon that? Dr. Royal Lee, an early nutritional pioneer, had it right when he stated: “Let us take vitamins which come from food.” Amen.

Top 10 Vitamin-rich Whole Foods

Beets (Betaine, Vitamin C, Vitamin B3, Vitamin B5, Vitamin B6)

Carrots (A, Beta-carotene) Blueberries (Vitamin C, Vitamin E)

Sweet Potato (Vitamin A, Beta-carotene)

Fish (Vitamin B6, Vitamin B12, Vitamin D)

Broccoli (Folate, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin K, Beta-carotene)

Spinach (Folate, Vitamin C, Vitamin K)

Red Peppers (Vitamin A, Vitamin E, Vitamin C, Vitamin B6, Folate)

Eggs (Vitamin A, Riboflavin, Folic Acid, Vitamin B6, Vitamin B12)

Chicken (B Vitamins)


Dr. Jody Kincaid graduated from the Ohio State College of Veterinary Medicine in 1978. He owns and operates the Anthony Animal Clinic and Holistic Healing Center and the Southern New Mexico Wellness Center. Dr. Kincaid became certified in veterinary acupuncture in 1997 and Chinese Herbal therapy in 2000. In 2001, he received his ND (naturopathic doctor) degree and began treating people as well as animals. Dr. Kincaid lectures nationally on human and veterinary nutrition and hosts a local radio show in El Paso on natural medicine for pets and people.