Vitamin C seems to be critically important to all humans and animals. It’s vital for the production of collagen, helps to recycle vitamins A and E, it helps with the absorption of iron, and supports adrenal function particularly during times of extreme stress. Humans and primates can’t produce vitamin C like other animals can and, therefore, must ingest it form a dietary source. The human diet is largely dependent on vitamin C rich foods, particularly fruits and vegetables. In theory vitamin C ascorbate can help cure ailments, build tissue, counteract stress, and promote gut health. This is at least how synthetic ascorbic acid has been advertised. But what seems great in theory isn’t always as great in reality. And there are a number of myths surrounding vitamin C which this article aims to clear up.
Myth 1: Ascorbic Acid = Vitamin C
Vast sums of money have been expended to make this myth a part of conventional wisdom but, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Ascorbic acid, which in over the counter supplements, is synthetically derived, represents only the outer ring that serves as a protective shell for the entire Vitamin C complex, much like an orange peel that serves as a protective shell for an orange. Real Vitamin C found in whole foods contain the following components:
- Bioflavonoids (Vitamin P)
- Factor K
- Factor J
- Factor P
- Ascorbic Acid
When only ascorbic acid, as found in a synthetic Vitamin C is taken, the body must gather all of the other components of the full Vitamin C complex from the body’s tissues in order to utilise the ascorbic acid. If any of these parts are missing, there is no vitamin C, no vitamin activity, and ascorbic acid itself does not provide any of the health benefits that the Vitamin C complex does. Moreover, if ascorbic acid is taken in high doses, it can deplete the body of the abovementioned components. Ascorbic acid is an isolate , a fraction, a distillate of naturally occuring vitamin C.
Myth 2: If we don’t get enough vitamin C through food sources we can compensate for it by taking an over the counter vitamin C/ascorbic acid.
Vitamins are not individual molecular compounds. Natural Vitamin C never occurs in isolated form but rather, is accompanied by complex nutrients which are essential for Vitamin C’s bioactivity. More about that in the next section. The synthetic ascorbate in over the counter vitamins, however, appears in an isolated form, often in overly high concentrations which the human body hasn’t evolved to properly utilise. Vitamins cannot be isolated from their complexes and still perform their specific life functions within the cells . When isolated into artificial commercial forms, like ascorbic acid, these purified synthetics act as drugs in the body. They are no longer vitamins, and to call them such is inaccurate.
A synthetic, fractionated chemical ascorbic acid never grew in the ground, never saw the light of day, never was alive or part of anything alive.
Synthetic vitamins can also cause harm. A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (Vol.87, No. 1, 142-149) reveals, for instance, that synthetic supplementation with vitamin C ascorbate devastates the muscle , causing impairment in mitochondrial function, loss of endurance, and inhibition of the body’s own antioxidant enzymes superoxide dismutase (SOD) and glutathione peroxide. Levels of SOD and glutathione peroxide are known markers of health, and any substance that causes a substantial decrease of these essential antioxidant enzymes disrupts the body’s immune system thus lowering the capacity to resist infection and disease.
Myth 3: The higher the dosage the better the vitamin
In addition to Vitamin C, a whole fruit extract offers a very important added bonus – the synergistic effects of phytochemicals and nutritional cofactors that enhance Vitamin C. Why is this so important?
Phytochemicals – Food for Thought.
- Research shows that the actions of antioxidants (like Vitamin C) alone do not explain the reduced risk of developing chronic diseases like cancer and heart disease in people with diets rich in fruit and vegetables. Taken alone, individual antioxidants studied in clinical trials do not appear to have consistent preventative effects, and it is now widely believed that it is the additive and synergystic effects of phytochemicals in fruit and vegetables that are responsible for these potent antioxidant and anticancer activities, not single antioxidants.
- Studies show, for instance, that although a fruit like apple contains only 5mg of Vitamin C, the phytochemicals in the apple work synergistically to provide the equivalent of 1500mg of Vitamin C! Without the phytochemicals Vitamin C only accounts for 0,4% of the very potent antioxidant value of apples! It follows, therefore, that natural/whole food Vitamin C does not have to be taken in high doses to be potent and that it cannot be compared to over the counter ascorbic acids.
- Potatoes contain less than 20mg of vitamin C, yet it ‘s been proven to, not only prevent scurvy, but to cure scurvy in its advanced state!
Why is the myth that we need high doses of Vitamin C so persistent then?
In the US, 90% of ascorbic acid is manufactured at a facility in New Jersey, owned by Hoffman-LaRoche, one of the world’s biggest drug manufacturers. Here, ascorbic acid is made through a process involving cornstarch and volatile acids. Most US vitamin companies then buy the bulk ascorbic acid from this single facility. After that, marketing takes over. Each company makes its own labels, its own claims and its own formulations, each claiming to have the superior form, even though it all came from the same place. To differentiate their products, each makes claims of “high potency”. Our vitamins are higher potency than theirs, etc. The point is, the higher the potency, the more druglike the product. Natural whole food vitamins are very low potency yet are very potent as can be seen in the examples of apples and potatoes mentioned above.
The Nutritional Bottom Line
Vitamin C is a very important nutrient with many benefits. It makes sense not to take Vitamin C in a synthetic form and in isolation, however, but to take it with its nutritional cofactors, as it occurs in nature and in whole food. Is supplementation necessary? Yes! Because of soil depletion, mineral depletion, pesticides, air pollution, and erosion, it is common knowledge that food grown today have a fraction of the vitamins and minerals necessary for normal human cell function.
Boyer, J. and Rui H.L. Apple Phytochemicals and their Health Benefits. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC442131/
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Kim, B. Healthy Foods that contain Vitamin C [Article]. http://drbenkim.com/nutrient-vitaminc.html
O’Shea, T. Whole Food Vitamins: Ascorbic Acid is not Vitamin C [Article]. https://www.justlivewell.com/whole-food-vitamins-ascorbic-acid-is-not-vitamin-c/
Pope, S. MGA. Beware of Ascorbic Acid: Synthetic Vitamin C [Article]. https://www.thehealthyhomeeconomist.com/beware-of-ascorbic-acid-synthetic/
Rui, H.L. Potential Synergy of Phytochemicals in Cancer Prevention: Mechanism of Action. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15570057