Natural vs. Synthetic Ingredients

Published on May 04, 2012 by Dr. Traj Nibber

To paraphrase the great Grucho Marx, a molecule is a molecule is a molecule. My colleagues and I regularly receive a large number of questions and complaints from customers asking about the source of ingredients used by AOR in their products and whether they are natural or synthetic.

The first point to note is that nature is very clever and helpful, and between 60-75% of all anti infective, (antibiotics) and anti cancer prescription drugs on the market, are derived from natural sources like leaves, bark, root, seeds, microorganisms etc. Nature is an excellent teacher and natural product researchers, more accurately called pharmacognosists, widely use nature as a platform to develop new products. This is a much more of an easy route to take than to start the process of drug development right from scratch.

The second point is that many natural molecules can be and are being synthesized in laboratories, yet still conform to the definition of a natural product. There are many reasons for synthesizing natural ingredients such as; it is more economical, one can produce a purer product with less contamination from toxins, pesticides and heavy metals, it may be more environmental friendly (ironic but true! For example, some farmers will often ignore environmental issues and clear large swath of land (rain forests) to plant crops that bring in more cash). Another reason for synthesizing natural products is that one can have a regular supply which is not dependent on the weather conditions such as rain, moisture, seasons, as well as pests and other stressors to nature.

There are many examples of this, such as the anti-cancer drug, paclitaxel which is derived from the bark of the Pacific Yew tree. This drug requires a large volume of the bark, which becomes a sustainability issue. Similarly, artemisinin a natural product from the plant Artemisia annua, used as an anti-malarial drug with less ability to develop resistance unlike the traditional anti-malarial like   amodiaquine, is present in very small amounts in the plant and thus makes artemisinin very expensive to attain. Extracting penicillin from the fungi is also not very economically viable as the concentrations produced by the fungi are very low. In these and many other cases it is far more economical to synthesize the same molecule in the lab quickly and inexpensively. Nature may be clever, but man has learned well over millennia how to copy and accelerate nature under controlled conditions.

Many of the ingredients used in natural health products like all the B vitamins (B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, etc), minerals like selenium, zinc, boron etc., and virtually all the amino acids are synthesized in laboratories because they are much more commercially viable. Trying to extract a molecule from nature and then concentrate it in a high enough potency is often just too costly.

The theory of mechanism of action of a natural product or a drug in the body is widely accepted to occur via a drug-receptor or a “lock-key” interaction. The basis of this theory has been around for over fifty years and can be envisioned as a key (molecule of drug or a natural product) fitting into a lock (a receptor) and opening the door (eliciting biological action e.g. muscle twitching, energy production, relaxation of blood vessels or bronchioles in the lungs, contraction of the heart etc). Applying this theory to the physiological effect, the receptor (or the lock) cannot tell the nature (whether it is made by nature or made in a lab) of the key as long as it fits the lock exactly. This is the key (no pun intended) to understanding natural product development. In other words, a key is a key is a key (thank you very much senior Marx!). It does not matter where it originated. In short, an ingredient made in the lab is still a natural ingredient as one cannot really tell the difference between ingredients such as lycopene, vitamin C, alpha lipoic acid, made by plants or those synthesized in a laboratory.

Sometimes questions will be asked as to why certain ingredients like citric acid, sorbitol, nitrates, glucose etc are used in the occasional supplement. Well, they are all natural ingredients and the body not only uses these but produces them all the time! These and many other ingredients, which many retailers, consumers and physicians baulk at, are regularly synthesized by the body as part of many metabolic activities taking place. I had one person claim that nitrates were harmful to take, and yet our salads, beets and spinach are loaded with nitrates! Moreover, the body regularly produces nitrates to act as a reservoir or a depot circulating in the blood to be available at times when the body needs to produce the really important nitric oxide (NO) molecule without which the body cannot function effectively. Some of the biological effects of the NO are; relaxation of blood vessels so as to reduce blood pressure, boost the immune system and ward off infections and allergies, to reduce inflammation, act as a powerful cell protector like the kidneys, lungs and the liver and support many other cellular activities. It must be noted that levels of NO decrease with age especially after 35 years, necessitating the need to supplement with nitrates.

However, some companies do advertise that their vitamins, minerals and amino acids are entirely extracted from natural sources. That may well be true but the concentrations of these ingredients will generally be much lower and may not suffice to meet recommended daily allowance or RDA’s.

The lock-key theory works well when both the lock and the key are well known. Of course this may not be the case where the receptor or the key aren’t properly defined or well studied. Sometimes, a single molecule may not suffice and a blend or a medley of molecules may be a better approach to take. Moreover, in such cases, the molecules are often present in a “matrix” and that in itself may be important. For example, in the case of St John’s Wort, a plant widely used in Europe for treatment of mild depression, the active molecules or the key(s) aren’t known, it could be hypericin or hyperforin or some other flavonoids, or it may be a combination. In that case, a whole plant extract may be more useful instead of a single molecule approach and it would be a futile attempt to try and synthesize the ingredients in a lab and try to replicate the mixture or the proportions to match the nature made form.

An interesting example is the case of GABA or gamma amino butyric acid, an amino acid that works in the brain specifically at the GABA receptors. Because GABA is an inhibitor, it essentially suppresses or depresses the neurons from getting overly excited and is widely used as a relaxant or an antianxiety agent. Some companies insist that natural GABA is more effective than GABA made in the lab. However, this makes no sense in the classical lock and key theory. Since both the lock and the key are clearly known what does it matter where the key originates from? Until there is clinical evidence to the contrary, synthetic and less expensive GABA is as effective as plant derived GABA.

We need to understand that just because an ingredient is made in a laboratory does not mean that it isn’t natural. Natural products can be synthesized efficiently, quickly and cost effectively in a lab and it will be no different to its natural counterpart. Next time you look at a natural health product and it says pure vitamin C or ascorbic acid you can be quite sure that it is synthesized in a laboratory!

You may also be interested in: "Common Misconceptions about Non-Medicinal Ingredients"

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  • Nadine L.

    I've always had my misgivings about synthetic products, but this definitely clears away some misconceptions I had. I especially loved the lock-key analogy. Thanks Dr. Nibber :)