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Organic Vitamins: Are they worth the cost?

Organic Vitamins: Are they worth the cost?

organic vitamins, natural fruit and vegetablesModern living, with its stress and pollutants in the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat, places a huge burden on our bodies. Scientists are only just getting to grips with some of these impacts but already there is clear evidence that as wonderful as modernity is, it also places a toll on our health. Take just as one example is Vitamin D. Numerous studies have shown how it has a strong link with reduced rates of cancer (especially breast cancer) and infections. Yet living indoors and working all day indoors means that most of us are dangerously short of this essential vitamin. The medical case for supplementing with some vitamins is compelling, but what about the case for using more expensive organic vitamins derived from natural sources?

When the modern science of vitamins first began to develop a century or so ago it was in the context of an emerging technological fascination with synthetic chemicals. For instance, while some of the earliest studies on health and vitamins noticed that sailors got sick without fresh food, the response was a simple and holistic one. Sailors on British navy ships were given a ration of lime juice every day and most nautical nations established vegetable gardens on their major sea routes. The Cape of Good hope (near Cape Town) started out as a colony because Dutch ships going to the indies needed to stop for fresh supplies to ensure the sailors had enough vitamins. Similarly when it was observed that poor children in industrial towns in Britain were suffering from weak bones because of a lack of vitamin D, they were given cod liver oil to drink.

This kind of response, unscientific as it may have been, was probably a more sensible one in the long run than the more modern ones which followed. Around the turn of the last century, scientists learned how to identify and synthesise all sorts of chemicals. For the first time, for instance, scientists could work out exactly what the composition of various vitamins was. This sparked a huge effort to synthesise many of them artificially and for the following half a century we thought we were doing well by adding these synthetic substances to food or taking them as pills. Vitamin C wasn’t something that came from limes and fresh vegetables, but was the chemical ascorbic acid, which could be brewed up in a lab and added to artificially flavoured children’s juices or sugary sweets. Vitamin D wasn’t something we got from being outdoors in the sunshine or from eating fish: it was a substance that could be synthesised out of soya bean oil.

This approach, no doubt, helped many people because it reduced the cost of vitamins dramatically. And for a child about to get scurvy, synthetic vitamin C is, I’m sure, better than none at all. But it has led to two dangers. The first is that it led us to believe that the synthetic form is always equal to the natural or organic form of a vitamin. In fact, much research has now shown that this is not the case. Vitamin E, for instance comes in two forms, a left-handed and a right-handed form (I’m simplifying things but this is a way of visualising a chemical structure of an otherwise identical molecule). Now the two may be chemically identical and to a chemists laboratory they are the same thing. But to the body they are completely different and only one form is actually any good. Nature naturally produces the one we need and can use, but when synthesising the chemical form of Vitamin E in a factory or laboratory, we produce both sorts. So in fact, half of what gets taken in the form of a synthetic pill will be wasted as it can’t be used by the body.

Science is now catching up and it is possible to get “natural source” vitamin E in a pill that is in the right form.

Even so, the science of synthetics leads to a second danger and that is a fetish with isolating compounds looking for a magic pill or silver bullet that can be taken, when in nature many compounds come bundled together with others and work together in harmony. For example, some scientists are convinced that the chemical that makes tomatoes red, which is called lycopene, can reduce the risk of some forms of cancer and that it is especially healthy for men because it is thought to reduce the risk of prostate problems. Manufacturers have been quick to jump on this evidence and now produce lycopene pills so that instead of eating lycopene rich foods such as watermelon, pink grapefruit or cooked tomato, you can just take a pill. But no-one has proved for sure whether lycopene works on its own or whether it needs the other substances that it is commonly found associated with to make you healthier.

So the first conclusion is that one should concentrate on eating vitamin rich foods such as fruit and vegetables. I prefer to eat organic ones because I believe that they contain less pesticide and other bad stuff as well as hopefully will have more of the good stuff in them. One should not take vitamins as a substitute for healthy eating but rather as a supplement to it.

The next conclusion that I draw is that where I do take vitamins I try to use ones from natural sources and ideally ones that are as close to those used by the body. For instance I try to take natural source Vitamin E rather than the synthetic variant. I also supplement with Vitamin D and in this case use a form that is produced by our bodies in sunlight (this is called Vitamin D3, which should not be confused with D2, which is produced by plants). Now this may not please strict Vegans or vegetarians but I believe the plant-derived one is not as good as the D3 form which is found in fish and eggs.

It only stands to reason then that, where possible, one should also try to use organically-sourced vitamins, since I believe that organic fruit and vegetables are better than intensively farmed varieties. The last point is that when taking vitamins, whether they are organic vitamins or synthetic ones, it makes sense to take them in a complex rather than as a single supplement since many work synergistically together and protect one another from being oxidised (or destroyed by oxygen). This, it seems to me, helps mimic the way would be get them in nature, from fruits and vegetables containing many vitamins all at once and all working together in the body.

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