Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Pills of... vitamins: fact #2

Here we are for the second episode of this very energetic saga (pardon me my bad pun). In the previous episode, we have seen our heroine prevailing over shaggy traffickers of natural vitamins.
In this post, I will also tell why, in part, but only in a minuscule part, I think the supporters of natural vitamins are right - and where again they're missing the target.

From a chemical point of view, it does not matter where a substance comes from - as long as two substances have the same chemical structure, they will have exactly the same properties. If I take carbon from the moon, it will have the same chemical properties of carbon on earth (maybe not the physical properties*). If I take methane from mars, it will behave exactly like the methane on earth. If I take vitamin c from a pill, it will be absolutely identical to the one synthesized by plants and animals**.
I concede there are some exceptions, of course. Vitamin E is a case in point: in commercial products there are two forms***, of which only one is active (they cannot be synthesized separately - animal and plants are smarter than humans and they can make only the active form); but why people mistrust scientists so much? Why don't people believe that only the active ingredient is counted? (Indeed, the labels talk about vitamin E equivalents)****.
But why the vitamins coming from food might offer some advantages to us?
Personally, I came to the conclusion that gorging myself on vitamins once a day might be not the best way to get my daily supply. You see, besides a couple of vitamins (A and D), the human body has no storage facilities for vitamins. If I eat 600 milligrams of vitamin c in the morning, but I only need 5 milligrams during that particular time, then the excess will be happily excreted with the waste material (in the form of pee). That's good, because a scientific paper some time ago showed that high concentration of vitamin c, especially in presence of iron (hey! my supplement contains 27 milligrams of iron!) could work as pro-oxidant - which means that it could actually make things worse, not better! But going back to the main issue, it means that 555 milligrams are literally wasted! Later in the day, I may need more vitamin c, but of course it is not available anywhere in my body, because it has been already disposed of! Dahh!
To counteract this problem, now it is possible to purchase slow-release vitamin c (I don't know whether other vitamins are available in slow-release form). My point is: why don't I simply eat more oranges? Say one orange every two hours? Fruit is tastier than pills, probably just as expensive (when buying it in the season), and it contains precious minerals and fiber... Besides, there are so many reports that other compounds in fruit and vegetables might be not just beneficial for our health, but actually necessary!
Of course, it is wise to take a pill whenever we feel we won't meet our daily requirements, say if we are travelling, or we have a cold...
Still, this argument does not justify the people who discredit food supplements, only to suggest exotic alternatives... Especially very expensive alternatives...

* a gross approximation is that chemistry deals with the "outside" of atoms and molecules - so the way they react with each other; physics deals with the "inside" of the atoms - so we don't include the properties of isotopes in our discussion: it is already complicated enough! (And not really relevant).
** also because a new commercial production line for vitamin c isolates the vitamin produced by friendly bugs - so even the vitamin c found in pills is technically coming from a biochemical source. I am not sure it reached the whole planet yet, though.
*** dl-alpha tocopherol is a mixture of d-alpha tocopherol and l-alpha tocopherol. They cannot be easily separated by conventional means, and anyway, the inactive form is harmless. It's simpler to leave it there.
**** not all scientists are after the money (actually, given the little salaries they receive, they're definitely not after the money)...

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