Vitamins: How to Tell Natural from Synthetic

Authored or posted by | Updated on | Published on October 19, 2008 | 9 Replies
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Flickr Commons: Image provided by Bradley Stemke

Millions of people take dietary supplements everyday to improve their health, but only a few know how to tell if their supplements are synthetic or not. Synthetic vitamins are usually less effective, because they are chemically created or reduced down to one specific crystalline vitamin; therefore, they are no longer natural. Synthetic vitamins are not natural because they are missing natural synergistic components, such as mineral activators, co-factors, enzymes and co-vitamin helpers.

Besides not being natural, some synthetic vitamins are contaminated with harmful chemicals and many of them are cheaply made. What makes it worse is that a good portion of synthetic vitamins contain genetically modified ingredients. This is because soy protein isolate, corn starch and modified food starch are added to the vitamins. These three ingredients, if produced in the USA, are usually genetically modified.

If we are only comparing the main chemical structures of synthetic and natural vitamins, the differences would not be that significant. If we compare all the chemical structures of synthetic and natural vitamins, the differences would be significant. In this case, natural vitamins would win because they contain more synergistic components. The most convenient way to tell if a vitamin is synthetic or natural is to read the label on the back of the container or package. Below are some tips about reading supplement labels and how to tell the difference between synthetic and natural vitamins.

What is %DV

  • Percent DV (Daily Values) are standard values developed by the FDA for indicating how much vitamins or minerals are found in one serving. For example, if a vitamin has a percentage DV of 50 percent, this means that one serving equals half of the FDA recommended intake of that vitamin.

What is DRI and DRV

  • DRI and DRV are standard values based on recommended intakes from dietary food sources developed by the FDA for use on food and supplement labels. It’s important to know that most of the FDA recommendations are not accurate because they target minimal health and not optimal health. For this reason, relying on their recommendations will not help prevent diseases.
  • DRI (Dietary Reference Intakes) are label values for vitamins, minerals and protein.
  • DRV (Daily Reference Values) are label values for nutrients and food components that do not have an RDA.

What is RDA

  • RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowances) is a standard dietary guideline for recommending the amounts of nutrients that individuals should consume daily.

How to tell the difference between synthetic and natural vitamins

  • Vitamin A: Natural sources are carrots, fish oils, sweet potatoes, and spirulina. Synthetic sources are from acetate, palmitate, retinol, or if there is no source then it is usually synthetic.
  • Vitamin C: Natural sources are citrus fruit, chickweed, acerola cherry, rose hips and green pepper. Synthetic sources are from ascorbic acid, calcium ascorbate and ester C.
  • Vitamin D: Natural sources are fish oil and shitake mushroom. Synthetic sources are irradiated ergosterol (yeast) and cholecalciferol. If the source is not given it is usually synthetic.
  • Vitamin E: Natural sources are D-alpha tocopherol, wheat germ oil, safflower oil, nuts and rice bran. Synthetic sources are mixed tocopherols, DL-alpha tocopherol, or if the source is not given, it is probably synthetic.
  • Vitamin K: Natural sources are alfalfa, menaquinone, phylloquinone, wheat grass, barley grass and spinach. Synthetic source is menadione. If there is no source then it is presumably synthetic.
  • Vitamin B1 (also known as Thiamine): Natural sources are yeast, wheat grass, wheat germ, beans and blackstrap molasses. Synthetic sources are thiamin mononitrate and thiamin hydrochloride.
  • Vitamin B2 (also known as Riboflavin): Natural sources are rice bran, wheat grass, wheat germ, yeast, flaxseed and rose hips. If the source is Riboflavin it is synthetic.
  • Vitamin B3 (also known as Niacin): Natural sources are yeast, barley and wheat grass. If the source is niacin it is synthetic.
  • Vitamin B5 (also known as Pantothenic Acid): Natural sources are wheat grass, yeast, rice bran, chlorella, flaxseed and rose hips. If the source is calcium pantothenate it is synthetic.
  • Vitamin B6 (also known as Pyridoxine): Natural sources are wheat grass, rice bran, yeast, chlorella, wheat germ, bee pollen, flaxseed and rose hips. If the source is pyridoxine hydrochloride it is synthetic.
  • Vitamin B7 (also known as Biotin): Natural sources are rice bran, wheat grass and wheat germ, liver, yeast, chlorella, kelp, flaxseed and rose hips. If the source is D-biotin it is synthetic.
  • Vitamin B9 (also known as Folate): Natural sources are wheat grass and wheat germ, rice bran, chlorella, flaxseed, kelp and rose hips. If the source is pteroylglutamic acid or folic acid, it is synthetic.
  • Vitamin B12 (also known as Cobalamin or Cyanocobalamin): Natural sources are cobalamin, wheat grass and wheat germ, rice bran, yeast, chlorella, kelp, bee pollen, rose hips and flaxseed. Synthetic versions are streptomycin fermentation and cyanocobalamin.

Learning how to tell the differences between synthetic and natural vitamins can be confusing, but perfecting this skill will help you choose a dietary supplement that is worth your money. In general, vitamins are natural if the label shows food sources next to their names. Some synthetic vitamins do work but when taken without certain minerals, enzymes and co-vitamin helpers, they may not work as well as natural vitamins.

Keep in mind that the term “natural” can be misleading. Supplement manufacturers do not have to go through a verification process to use the term natural on their products. Because of this, they can add synthetic vitamins and preservatives and still claim that their products are natural. As for the term “organic” they need to go through a verification process before they can use it.

Where to buy natural and high quality vitamin supplements

One of the best places to find organic and natural high quality vitamins is at this website. Some good organic vitamin supplements are made by MegaFood. MegaFood dietary supplements are made with 100 percent whole food nutrients and certified organic herbs. They are free of pesticide, herbicides, gluten and soy.

If you want to learn more about natural and synthetic vitamins, I highly recommend reading this article. The article is written by Dr. Robert J Thiel, Ph.D., N.D. He does an great job of explaining the differences between natural and synthetic vitamins and why natural vitamins are superior.


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Category: Nutrition & Supplements

Comments (9)

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  1. Silver J says:

    What are some cheaper alternatives with natural vitamins?

  2. Marc Lemay says:

    Hi P.L.,
    I’m a Senior Scientist at Nutrilite, and my comments here do not necessarily reflect those of my employer. I wanted to comment on an older post for which commenting was closed. It was a review of Nutrilite DOUBLE X, but my comments are also germane to this post about natural vitamins.I was struck by several things in your review of Double X and the comments it elicited over the almost two years since you first posted it. Much of the discussion revolves around your gauge of quality, which is whether a given multivitamin is “natural” or not. You are correct in stating that Double X is not all-natural. It contains both natural and synthetic nutrients. (But your listing of the Supplement Facts for Double X omits over half the ingredients actually listed.) Distributors who claim it is all-natural are betraying their misunderstanding of their own product and undermining their own as well as the brand’s credibility. I suspect that that’s where the confusion comes from – there’s so much talk about phytonutrients and plant concentrates in Double X that people assume it must be entirely made of plants. We use both natural and synthetic ingredients for several reasons, including cost, nutrient content, and manufacturability. An all-natural multisupplement, such as one you recommend elsewhere on your website, would provide very low levels of several essential nutrients. For example, I calculated that with the all-natural supplement that gets your thumbs up, the maximum dosage of nine tablets a day provides only 15 mcg of folic acid. The Daily Value for folic acid is 400 mcg. An “all-natural” supplement thus does a poor job of actually supplementing the diet with useful amounts of any nutrients – providing in this case less than 5% of the minimum amount of folate needed every day to stave off a deficiency disease. And so on for every nutrient in an “all-natural” multi: they’re there at such low levels you’d have to a meal of them to get a reasonable amount. And that’s just my point: there’s nothing wrong with “all-natural” vitamins and minerals. Here the best recommendation is: walk down to your local grocery store or farmer’s market and get yourself some fresh fruits and vegetables; better yet, supplement your diet with fruits and vegetables you grow yourself. But in some cases – opinions vary; for instance, you have apparently stopped taking Double X along with any other supplements – it is necessary to supplement even a very healthy diet in order to support optimal health goals rather than just avoid deficiency disease.
    Don’t confuse the “natural” vs. “synthetic” issue with other questions such as contamination or heat-treatment during processing. It’s not true that “synthetic” vitamins are more prone to contamination with aluminium or anything else. On the contrary, quality control is much more demanding for a natural vitamin than for a synthetic. To paraphrase Gary Reineccius from his excellent article in Scientific American on the mistaken but commonly held belief that “natural flavors” are inherently better than synthetic flavors, Nature has no restrictions on using toxic chemicals, whereas the synthetic chemist does. Also, synthetic vitamins are not heat-treated; it’s plant concentrates that often must be gently heated to dehydrate them and reduce bulk and improve stability.
    In your own list of recommended minerals you mention several synthetic forms (no proprietary chelated minerals would be considered natural, since they are manufactured in a laboratory), so your own definition of “natural” is unclear. Behind this whole confused and confusing notion of “natural” lies, in my opinion, an entirely legitimate worry, or quest: a worry that by popping pills down our throats we might be harming ourselves; and a quest for healthy living filled with vitality and energy. At Nutrilite we take the responsibility of making supplements that people take into their bodies seriously. “Natural” does not mean safe and pure any more than “synthetic” does. In either case – whether we’re working with synthetic or natural vitamins or natural plant concentrates – we have multiple quality controls in place that are unrivaled in the industry. You discount any information about our quality control available from Nutrilite or Amway, but Nutrilite products did pass the quality checks run by the independent, who also found that Nutrilite came out on top in a brand survey of consumer satisfaction.
    As you know, Double X contains both natural and synthetic nutrients. For example, vitamin C is listed on the label as coming from both ascorbic acid (synthetic) and acerola (natural). It contains all-natural vitamin E (from d-Alpha Tocopheryl succinate), which is 1.4 times as bioavailable as synthetic vitamin E. It also contains synthetic folic acid, which is 1.6 times as bioavailable as natural folate. For vitamins and minerals the choice was made on a case-by-case basis to go for natural or synthetic form. To my mind, there are two key points of differentiation for Double X compared to other high-end multisupplements: (1) the quality control, from seed to finished product, and (2) the variety of plant concentrates. On top of this, it also provides high, optimal-health-supporting levels of vitamins and minerals.
    With the latest generation of Double X (in the US and many other countries around the world), the formula contains plant concentrates from apple, rosemary, sage, and blueberry among many others – all of these were based from multi-stage bioassay screening designed (to simplify a little) around a single concept: variety. Variety is an intuitively healthy concept – we get that a healthy diet doesn’t mean high chronic consumption of any single healthy food. The very mental image of a healthy plateful features many different textures and colors: variety, because different plants provide different things are bodies need to stay healthy.
    Focusing here on the plant ingredients, Double X has three kinds of variety built-in: (1) variety of ingredients; it doesn’t contain, say, high amounts of just two or three plant ingredients; it contains more than twenty. (2) Next, it also provides variety of action, meaning action in the body (as verified by bioassays, and also based on different phytonutrient class or family). Double X is not, for example, super-powered with “just” antioxidant power with an eye-popping ORAC number; rather, along with high antioxidant potency and a high ORAC number, it also provides different kinds of benefits; it provides bioassay-supported action against five types of free radicals; we’ve also included ingredients that are help the body detoxify itself or help protect and repair DNA, functions which have nothing or little to do with just antioxidant potential. (3) Finally, in Double X there’s also variety within individual plant ingredients. Take the acerola, for example: we could have aimed to produce a super-pure, super-concentrated acerola extract that provides only the single molecule ascorbic acid; instead, we like a rather “impure” natural acerola extract, that contains high amounts of ascorbic acid (vitamin C), along with a preponderance of other naturally-occuring flavonoids found in the fresh fruit. This is the “whole food” philosophy at the level of individual ingredients. Though in some cases plant concentrates provide highly-concentrated specific nutrients, none of these are so concentrated that they are completely divorced from the whole food they were extraced from; lutein, for example, extracted from marigold flowers, also contains other mixed carotenoids like zeaxanthin found in the whole fresh plant. Thus with those three kinds of variety is Double X meant to complement a healthy diet that is, yes, based on natural, unprocessed foods as far as possible. Double X is an examplar of the “Best of Nature. Best of Science” philosophy.

    It’s interesting that you start out your review of Double X by stating that you felt more energetic, or rather less energetic after you stopped. It’s something we hear a lot and something I feel too. “Optimal health” is a bit of an abstract concept and some supplements are taken on faith and hope – for example, I take supplements for my eyes (lutein and others) because of the scientific evidence – no hard proof, but associations between high consumptions of lutein in the diet and risk of macular degeneration. I don’t feel my eyesight getting stronger, though. With a supplement like Double X, it can be a little different – it doesn’t have to be only on faith. Many people do feel noticeably better when they take it, or, like you, only notice a difference when they stop.
    Marc Lemay,

    • PL Chang says:

      Thank you for the great information about Double X.

      When comparing natural and synthetic vitamins it comes down to quality and how well the vitamins work with the natural systems of the body. When extracting natural vitamins or creating synthetic vitamins, both of them have their pros and cons when it comes to quality issues. The problem with natural vitamins is that when extracted from it natural sources, many of them become unstable and some are missing key synergistic components that are needed by the body to utilize them effectively. Synthetic vitamins are used to replace these natural vitamins because many of them are more stable and cheaper to make. Unfortunately, most synthetic vitamins do not have the full chemical structures because they are isolated; therefore, they are missing a lot of their synergistic components. For example, Cyanocobalamin which is the synthetic version of vitamin B12 is only one part of the vitamin B12 complex. The vitamin B12 found in nature is not the same as the synthetic vitamin B12 because it contains all the synergistic components. The main reason why vitamins found in nature have these components along with other nutrients is because they all work together to keep everything in balance. It is similar to how all the systems in the human body work together to maintain balance. Because synthetic vitamins are missing important synergistic components, they are harder to absorb and utilize by the body. Nutrilite Double X has high levels of vitamins and minerals, but if they are hard to absorb or can’t be effectively utilize by the body, then people are just wasting their money.

      For more information about natural and synthetic vitamins, visit the link below. The link will take you to an article written by Dr. Robert J Thiel, Ph.D., N.D. His article does a great job of explaining the differences between natural and synthetic vitamins.

      To understand how well supplements work we need to study nature. Nature works in cooperation more than competition. If it did not work in cooperation, we would not be alive because the systems of our body would compete and destroy one another. This is what happens when people get autoimmune disorders.

      Nature is based on a system that evolves around balance. When something disrupts that balance, it threatens the survival of all the systems that are part of nature. Our body is a part of nature; therefore, it needs to be kept in balance for survival. One of the problems with supplement is that it is created by throwing a bunch of vitamins and minerals together. Many of the recommended daily values of vitamins and minerals are poorly estimated. For example, you mentioned that the daily value for folic acid is 400 mcg. This estimation is misleading because each person’s body utilizes folic acid differently. Also, scientists still do not have an accurate way of measuring the recommended daily values of vitamins and minerals.

      To truly find out the specific amount of vitamins and minerals each person needs, scientists will need to use biofeedback devices that can measure subtle energy in the body. These devices, if built and used correctly, can accurately detect diseases, and mineral and vitamin deficiency. When information collected from these devices are put into charts, doctors will be able to tell exactly what the problem is. By using the devices to stimulate the body with a signature compound, the body will react to it as if it is being given that substance. This works similar to the placebo effects but better. These subtle energy devices will be able to tell doctors exactly how much vitamins or minerals a person needs. Unfortunately, these devices are being attacked by the drug industry because it is a threat to its survival. The drug industry do not want people to know about these devices. Using subtle energy devices to detect vitamin deficiency is great because it is able to tell people exactly how much vitamins and minerals they need. Unfortunately, it is not widely available and can be inconvenient because people will need to visit their doctors for tests and results.

      Scientists know very little about how nature and the Universe truly work and yet here there are trying to create vitamins, minerals and genetically modified food. There is nothing wrong trying to copy nature as long as scientists do not exploit it. Scientists also need to do long-term studies before approving their creations to be sold to the public. Many of their creations are done and tested in test tube and animals. The results they get from these studies may be very different in a human. If scientists are not careful, their immature and naive actions are going to destroy the public’s health. Until scientists learn how to understand and use the language of consciousness, light, sound, pulsation, and energy vibration and use it in harmony with nature, they will never be able to create vitamins and minerals that can work as well as nature. Scientists did not create nature, nature created them. For them to exploit nature is like saying they are smarter than nature. To this day, scientists still have little clue as to what nature is and yet they already think they are superior than nature. If scientists want to create supplement and food that are safe to consume, they will need to learn how to work with nature and understand its language.

      You mentioned that the best recommendation is to “walk down to your local grocery store or farmer’s market and get yourself some fresh fruits and vegetables; better yet, supplement your diet with fruits and vegetables you grow yourself.” I agree with you but would like to add some more advice to improve your recommendation. The problem with many plant food in grocery store or farmer’s market is that it is depleted of nutrients, even the organic ones. This is because land use for agriculture is depleted of nutrients. The levels of nutrients in today’s soil is nowhere near what it was in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Plant food grown on soil back then contained sufficient levels of nutrients and free of most harmful chemicals, which was one of the main reasons why people back then rarely had cancer, heart disease, etc. To get sufficient levels of nutrients from today’s plant food, people will need to buy the organic ones that are grown on soil laced with rock dust. Even better, they should grow their own plant food on soil laced with rock dust.

      When comparing Nutrilite Double X to other supplements it is very competitive, but it is a supplement that I would not recommend to people who are already eating healthy diets. Why? Because like most supplements, Double X is not created with the concept of balance. The levels of ingredients in Double X are not sufficient, because the scientists working for Nutrilite does not have the technology to accurately measure how much vitamins and minerals are needed to keep the body in balance. Plus, some of its vitamins are hard to absorb. Furthermore, Double X has soy protein isolate, corn starch and modified food starch. These ingredients tell me that there is a very high probability, over 90 percent chance that Double X contain genetically engineered ingredients.

      If Nutrilite wants to create a supplement that is superior than its competitors, it will need to study how nature creates vitamins and learn to work with nature instead of against it.

      • sam barbary says:

        PL Chang

        Nice come back to the Nutrilte guy. You are 100% correct in saying that even eating organic produce may not be enough because of soil depletion. I did read numerous articles about soil depletion. Some researchers are adding rock dust to soils. This helps to replenish all the minerals that were sucked out of the soils during the past 200 years. Fulvic and humic acids are also enriching depleted soils with remarkable success.

  3. Stephanie says:

    “Double X is not created with the concept of balance. The levels of ingredients in Double X are not efficient, because the scientists working for Nutrilite does not have the technology to accurately measure how much vitamins and minerals are needed to keep the body in balanced, and some of its vitamins are hard to absorb. Plus, Double X contained soy protein isolate, corn starch and modified food starch. These ingredients tell me that there is a very high probability, over 90 percent chance that Double X contained genetically engineered ingredients. If Nutrilite wants to create a supplement that is superior than its competitors it will need to change the way it does business. Like most companies, Nutrilite is a company that relies on the monetary system. As long as it is stuck in this system, money will always be its top priority. The problem with this business model is that companies are limited to what they can do.” ????
    (For one, Nutrilite says that this any multi should be taken as a addition to a healthy diet not as a replacement. And overall, the added cornstarch and dextrose that are used are to make the pill stay in the form of the pill. And I believe you know this if you write on nutritional supplements.) Are you seriously stating this from looking at Scientific studies which Nutrilite is constantly performing; Those studies being performed and analyzed by a board of RDs and MDs. I’m sad to say you didn’t do much of professional inquiry into the Scientific Health Institute commissioned by Nutrilite and shouldn’t be giving your opinion on the validity of scientific information of Nutrilite Double X because of a biased opinion of how commerce works and the lack of a capitalist view of the what Amway stands for, giving normal individuals opportunities like few companies do. Oh and just so you know… Amway has a very high threshold of financial investment into scientific studies, considering they are known for creating the first organic multivitamin on the market and make it essential to invest in research built with measured facts and objective results.
    Maybe you should visit the Nutrilite Fields and production facility in California or Washington before making claims to the assumed quality and standards you have written. Please if you are going to state nutritional information, do it with research.

    • PL Chang says:

      Are you seriously stating this from looking at Scientific studies which Nutrilite is constantly performing; Those studies being performed and analyzed by a board of RDs and MDs. I’m sad to say you didn’t do much of professional inquiry into the Scientific Health Institute commissioned by Nutrilite and shouldn’t be giving your opinion on the validity of scientific information of Nutrilite Double X.

      I respect your opinion, you should do the same. It is called free speech.

      You have no idea how the world of business “truly” works. If you are an Amway IBO, you should get out of the business right now before they screw you over even more. This should be obvious soon enough.

      Please if you are going to state nutritional information, do it with research.

      I have done my research. I have written over 550 plus health and wellness articles to back it up. Have you done your research? Below are some links to prove it.

      Double x is full of synthetic vitamins. If it was as good as they claimed, where is the organic seal? You want a real doctor who is not afraid to tell you the truth about synthetic vitamins. Visit the link below.

      Here is a short exceprt from his website.

      Vitamin B1, Thiamin The free vitamin B1 (called thiamin) is a base. When it is synthesized it becomes a solid salt such as thiamin hydrochloride or thiamin mononitrate. Synthetically thiamin is usually marketed as thiamin hydrochloride or thiamin mononitrate and is a made from Grewe diamine (a coal tar derivative) processed with ammonia and other chemicals. No thiamin hydrochloride (often listed as thiamin HCL) or thiamin mononitrate is naturally found in food or the body (thiamin pyrophosphate is the predominant form in the body. Yeast and legumes are excellent food sources of natural thiamin.

      Guess what Double X have listed as vitamin B1 (A.K.A. Thiamin) in its supplement fact? Thiamine mononitrate, Thiamine hydrochloride.

      Instead of going the cheap route by using cheap synthetic vitamins and spiking up the levels of vitamins to high ineffective levels, Amway should have concentrated on making high quality vitamins. For example, the magnesium in Double X is from magnesium oxide (synthetic version). Two of the best sources of magnesium are magnesium taurate and magnesium citrate. The reasons are because they are easy to absorb and utilize by the body. Magnesium oxide is hard for the body to utilize and is very hard to absorb. This is just one example of many of the cheap synthetic vitamins in Double X.

      Double X also has soy protein isolate, corn starch and modified food starch. These ingredients tell me that there is a very high probability, over 90 percent chance that Double X contained genetically engineered ingredients. Below are some links about the health hazard of genetically modified food.

      Trusting Amway scientists’ information without doing your own research is very naive. Amway’s scientists are encourage to concentrate on the goods when studying the health effects of Nutrilite’s supplements. Even when they find negative things about them, they are told to keep their mouth shut. Below is an excerpt from an article I wrote about the truth behind food studies.

      The science community is seen by many people as a community that is reliable, accurate and intelligent. Because of this, food industries will pay scientists a lot of money to say good things about their products. In fact, most of these scientific studies are funded by the food industries themselves. Without their sponsorship, many of these scientific studies will not exist. Food industries are very good at manipulating their food claims. They are masters when it comes to deceiving the public from the truth.

      Most food industries (including supplement industries) only hire scientists to do studies that benefits them. Many of the scientists hired by food industries are well respected and are from prestigious universities. The reason for this is because it is easier to manipulate us by hiring scientists with high reputation. The role giving to these scientists is to do an experiment that can convince us to accept the product as good for us. Once that is done, they will use the results to brainwash us by putting out press releases through out the world. Their marketing strategies work very well for making profit but also does a great job destroying our health.

      Read more by clicking on the link below.

      Sorry to say this but you have been tricked into believing that Double X is as good as they claim. Learning the truth hurts but it will set you free.

  4. I just wanted to point out a slight correction about B12 in an otherwise wonderful article here.

    ALL B12 is synthetic, even when it occurs “in nature”. Ideally our own intestines will synthesize B12, but with today’s massive consumption of medications and junk foods, today, almost no-one can make their own B12. This is why we need to supplement it. Further, “natural” sources of B12 are not IN “wheatgrass, wheat germ, rice bran, yeast, chlorella, kelp, bee pollen, rose hips OR flaxseed” as mentioned. Sometimes however, B12 can be found (inconsistently) ON these items and therefore cannot be counted on as a reliable source. B12 is found in meat because it grows in the intestine of the animals and is absorbed back into the animal via the liver.

    The real problem with B12 (as opposed to all other vitamins), is not that it’s synthetic but that it’s made in a lab, by businesses that value profits over your health. The lab made B12 known as Cyanocobalamin are terrible for human consumption because it contains approximately 2% cyanide (the poison), whereas synthetic versions such as Methylcobalamin are an indication that the manufacture actually cared enough to not poison you.

    I see it as the job of our food/diet (mainly with probiotics), to restore and re-colonise our guts so that we can again grow our own B12.

    For more information see

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