When it comes to chronic disease, prevention rather than treatment is a far better strategy.
Currently more than 50% of Americans take a multivitamin. Why? Because they adopt prevention as a strategy but do not fully understand the risks, repercussions, and waste of synthetic supplements. They also are unaware of the synergistic and additive powers of whole foods over multivitamins. Perhaps they also hope they can juice cleanse their way out of a daily Happy Meal®. That’s my theory.
Prior to a 1994 law that made it illegal for the FDA to require safety or efficacy testing on supplements, there were 4,000 kinds of supplements on the market. Today, there are over 85,000. That proliferation has dumped massive amounts of plastic bottles into our oceans, spewed industrial carbon emissions into our atmosphere, soaked our soils and ground water with solvents and detergents, caused deforestation and depletion of marine life; and it hasn’t made us any healthier. As chronic disease and sea levels continue to rise, it is arguably making us and our planet sicker.
Large scale studies show that most dogs, cats and humans are fat and getting fatter, and that the extra pounds bring chronic disease and a shortened lifespan. That's right parents, our pets are living shorter, unhealthier lives.
Nearly all of us in the USA consume synthetic supplements daily. Most milk products are fortified with synthetic vitamin D. If you eat bread or cereal in the USA you’re eating folic acid, a synthetic form of folate (Vitamin B9). Mandated fortification of foods and the growing popularity of multivitamins means it’s possible – if not probable – that we are at risk for high intakes of synthetic folic acid, according to numerous studies.
We will talk more about the risks of unmetabolized folic acid (UMFA) shortly. Let’s first explore what the general differences are between natural and synthetic forms of nutrients, and how pet food manufacturers can be stuffing these substances in their products without your knowledge.
Synthetics Lurking in Pet Food
AAFCO has developed “complete and balanced” nutritional requirements for dogs, cats, puppies, and kittens among other creatures. Of the forty nutrients that make up these profiles, only six have upper limits. Meaning: manufacturers can include any amount (even toxic levels) of many substances in pet food and still be compliant with the requirements. Also worth noting, is that the profiles for puppies and kittens do not exist in nature. A manufacturer cannot make a pet food formula for youngsters or all life stages without including synthetics.
Most synthetic vitamins are identical in chemical structure to natural ones, but without the fiber and nutrients that come from food. The result is that most vitamins in pet food (and your daily capsule) don't come from plants. Instead, they are made in plants.
It is faster and cheaper to produce vitamins on an industrial scale. Today, more than 80% of the world's Vitamin C is made in high-polluting factories in China. Most glucosamine comes from China too. Eighty percent (80%) of pet food contains vitamin and mineral premixes according to DSM, China’s largest supplement manufacturer and maker of 13 vitamins, six minerals, and Omega3 and carotenoid supplements for animals.
What does “Natural” mean on a Label of Synthetic Supplements? Let’s look at Vitamin D.
Most regulators worldwide have not defined what "natural" means so a vitamin can say "natural" on the label but contain synthetic ingredients.
For example, production of Vitamin D involves boiling sheep fleece with detergent to extract a compound from lanolin that is then irradiated to produce a precursor of vitamin D. I’ll say it again: the process of making “natural” Vitamin D3 (i.e., cholecalciferol) involves both planet-destroying detergents and irradiation.
Pet Food Ingredients Are Fortified with Synthetics Without Disclosure to Consumers
Most cod liver oil for humans and pets is fortified at the cod liver oil factory with this synthetic Vitamin D. And because this fortification happens at the fish oil factory and not at the pet food factory, the manufacturer can claim that their pet food is synthetic free.
While web searches on cod liver oil tout it as a rich source of “natural” Vitamin D (approximately 450 IU per tsp), this claim is not supported by the leading manufacturers of cod liver oil (“CLO”) supplements, or actual testing. Nordic Naturals’ cod liver oil supplement, for example, contains no Vitamin D. (They make a separate “fortified” version for those wanting Vitamin D.) Carlson, Now, Vital Nutrients and others fortify their cod liver oil with synthetics. Manufacturers who claim that the Vitamin D in their CLO is exclusively from the liver of the cod, report Vitamin D levels at a fraction of that 450 IU/tsp level. The USDA Food Data Central acknowledges that the 450 IU/tsp is an estimate from other food sources, not actual CLO testing. Furthermore, at least one major fish oil manufacturer that co-packs and wholesales multiple private-labeled brands of CLO confirms on their certificate of analysis that the naturally occurring Vitamin D levels in straight cod liver oil are “insignificant.”
Then there’s nutritional yeast (also called dried yeast or inactive yeast) and Torula yeast that are increasingly common pet food ingredients. Popular pet food companies use these products to deliver zinc oxide, synthetic B Vitamins, and other vitamins and minerals into their “synthetic free” formulations.
What’s wrong with synthetics beyond detergents and irradiation? Plenty.
“Believe it or not at least eight vitamins can be synthetically created from fossil fuel products like coal tar,” says Dr. Derek Muller in the documentary Vitamania. “These products contain components like acetone found in nail polish remover, short chain alkanes found in petrol and various aromatic rings found in bitumen [aka asphalt]. The idea is to rearrange the building blocks into more complex chemical compounds – actually building vitamins,” Muller reports.
To clarify, Dr. Muller is not suggesting that you or your pets are metabolizing asphalt with your vitamin A supplement. The planet, however, is.
The supplement industry is approximately $130B worldwide and projected to grow to approximately $200B by 2028. The US accounts for about $50B of current sales, and the impact on the environment is horrific.
Destruction of Ecosystems and the Microbiome
Cod populations have been decimated in recent years due to rising demand for fish oil supplements. Cod in the north Atlantic are considered endangered. Half of the world’s coral and a third of its sea grasses have been destroyed. FAO reports that 35.4% of stocks are fished at unsustainable levels. This is up from 10% in 1974. Populations of menhaden, another common source of fish oil, have plummeted by 90% over the past 30 years. Menhaden are critical as they are a food source for numerous fish and birds (like eagles and osprey), and they clean algae, nitrogen, and plant detritus from water.
Let’s talk about Vitamin E. Vitamin E is one of the most in-demand products in the global market and its production generates a tremendous amount of carbon emissions. Currently, 80% of commercial Vitamin E comes from chemical synthesis involving acetone. This type of Vitamin E occupies the entire market in the feedstock industry (inclusive of pet food).
Increasingly vitamins (like E, Bs, and C) and amino acids are being manufactured from gram negative bacteria (e.g. e-coli) because this process can reduce the number of explosive chemicals used, carbon dioxide emissions, and costs. A notable downside, however, of this synthetic biology from e-coli is endotoxins. Endotoxins are produced when gram negative bacteria grow or die and at unmanageable levels they can initiate and perpetuate damage to and diseases of the gut. So while biologically synthesized vitamins may provide some relief to planetary ecosystems, they can be harming the most densely populated ecosystem on Earth: your (and your pets’) microbiome. An study of approximately 90% of commercially available pet foods estimated that 13% of what goes into a pet food bowl is an additive - including these synthetic substances.
Risks of Overdose and Underdose
There are concerns surrounding the accuracy of labeling claims. Trade associations in the US and UK have found significant overages in products that are still consistent with Good Manufacturing Practices, for example: 30–100% of declared value for vitamin A; 50% for vitamin B-12; 30–50% for ergocalciferol [Vitamin D2]; 30% for cholecalciferol [Vitamin D3], folic acid, thiamine, biotin, beta-carotene, vitamin K, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B-6, and vitamin C; and 5% for Vitamin E. Think about it. These significant, yet acceptable overages in potency of synthetic supplements mean that our pets who consume pet foods containing synthetics at unregulated maximum values have an increased risk of overdose.
Bioavailability and a Real-World Widespread Risk
There are questions surrounding the bioavailability and bioequivalence of synthetic versus natural sources of vitamins. For example, studies on Vitamin E have found that natural forms have twice the bioavailability of synthetic forms. There are also issues with chemically synthesized minerals being more bioavailable than natural forms.
Sharon Center, DVM of Cornell University has been advocating against the use of synthetic copper chelates at the levels mandated by AAFCO for years. According to Dr. Center dietary allowances of chelated copper mandated by AAFCO’s complete and balanced nutritional profiles exceed the physiologic tolerance of many dogs, and it is making them sick. Synthetic chelated copper has been shown to have a bioavailability of approximately 80% compared to the synthetic copper oxide’s and natural copper’s bioavailability of about 30%. Additionally, studies show that mammals are adept with regulating natural sources of copper in their diet. It appears that the more natural copper they consume, the less they may absorb – eliminating the excess natural copper in their stool. This is not the case, however, with synthetic copper chelates. Copper chelates accumulate in the liver and can cause a potentially grave nutritionally-provoked disease known as copper associated hepatopathy.
Calcium is another mineral that may have an inverse relationship between exposure and absorption. Not only do different chemical forms of synthetic nutrients have varying bioavailability (as we see with copper chelates and copper oxide, and different forms of inorganic iron and zinc) but nutrient-nutrient interactions may affect bioavailability. Vitamin C interacting with inorganic iron may enhance bioavailability of the iron. Decreasing the levels of magnesium and calcium one ingests also can increase the bioavailability of iron. Drugs can play a role. Antacids, for example, can block the absorption of phosphorus.
While synthetics may be structurally similar to natural substances, the body does not necessarily process them in the same way. Dietary B9 (folate) is initially metabolized in the small intestine, but the liver is the primary site for the metabolism of synthetic B9 (folic acid). Human studies show that the conversion of folic acid into metabolites similar to food sources, saturates between 200 – 400 mcg/day and intakes above this amount result in unmetabolized folic acid (UMFA) in circulation. UMFA has been associated with cognitive dysfunction as well as a reduction in natural killer (NK) cell function, implicating UMFA in cancer. Another study comparing natural B vitamins to synthetic forms shows that while bioavailability was similar, natural forms were associated with health benefits like reduced homocysteine and oxidative stress levels.
Whole Food Diets Are Just Plum Better Than Synthetics
The key question is whether a purified phytochemical (like a vitamin) has the same health benefit as the whole foods in which the phytochemical is present. The answer to this question appears to be a resounding “No”. The Vitamin C in apples with skin, for example, accounts for only 0.4% of the apple’s total antioxidant activity. This suggests that most of the antioxidant activity of fruits and vegetables comes from phenolics and flavonoids, not those vitamins and minerals.
Researchers looked at the total antioxidant activity and synergy relationships between different fruit combinations and showed that plums had the highest antioxidant activity due to the abundance and diversity of phytonutrients. They also showed that combinations of fruits resulted in greater antioxidant activity that was additive and synergistic.
There are roughly 8,000 phytochemicals in whole foods that we know of. Their additive and synergistic powers are where chronic disease preventative strategies prevail. It is widely accepted that the health benefits of the consumption of fruits and vegetables lower the risk of developing cancers, cardiovascular diseases, cataracts, age-related macular degeneration, central neurodegenerative diseases, diabetes, and more.
The conclusion of British and US academics at the University of Warwick and the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine who studied nearly 500,000 people in the western world said it best:
“Vitamins should not be used for chronic disease prevention. Enough is enough."
The overwhelming evidence supporting diets rich in the rainbow of vegetables and fruits over factory-made multivitamin and mineral supplements is the #1 reason Goodness Gracious makes 100% whole food complete and balanced meals for dogs and cats. Our love of the planet is a close second.
In addition to the links in this article, the following information may be helpful: