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How Vitamins are Made


Many "Professional" people don't know how synthetic vitamins are created, or even natural for that matter. Some know the starting material is often a petroleum distillate, but are not sure how it is changed into a vitamin form. There are two basic methods to make synthetic vitamins. One is mostly chemical, and the other is mostly natural using enzymes and fermentation of bacteria, often genetically modified to over-express the vitamin form or the enzyme needed to build the vitamin. Some might even call the synthetic vitamins made by this method, "natural".

Knowing the production methods might reveal some insight into the natural versus synthetic debate.


Decisions in the past were much simpler. You only had a handful of food choices compared to thousands today.  Foods have not only changed between their simple natural raw state, but processing methods are producing foods unrecognizable to their original source.

In the 1940's, science duplicated vitamins using some chemical processes and some natural enzymatic and fermentative methods. Assumptions were generated to measure similar actions between the new synthetic and natural food vitamins.  Only some of the many vitamin functions were known at that time and many of these early assumptions are still in place.

Years of research have now shown some flaws in those past assumptions. Scientists have now learned that the direction a molecule forms influences it's bioavailability and level of participation in body processes. Some synthetic vitamins form half of their molecules in the opposite direction nature's forms her molecules. And that just because vitamins with different forms perform some of the major functions, doesn't mean they perform all the functions of natural vitamins. 

This suggests that perhaps the biggest lesson to be learned is that Science does not yet have all the vitamin answers necessary for Nutritionists and Dietitians to offer proper recommendations?

The GOAL then is to get as close to the actual reality that the current limited scientific understanding allows. And accept that new research could change that understanding as recent studies have uncovered. Where science is limited, trust nature.

Some of the guidelines established for nutrition are still based upon past faulty science. Until these are updated, the vitamin criteria offered here just might be the more prudent choice.  Based upon the precautionary principle, it has safeguards built into it.   Check the references for yourself. It is your health that is at stake.


Of great interest here is the making of synthetic vitamins using natural enzyme and fermentative processes. Let's use use Riboflavin, Vitamin B2, as an example for the water soluble B vitamins.

1. Two fungi are primarily used, Eremothecium ashbyii and Ashbya gossypii, to start the industrial manufacture of vitamin B2 for animal feed which represents about 75% of vitamin B2 production. The medium they act on is molasses or a plant oil which supplies the carbon needed.

2. For the 25% used as supplements or in medicine, yeast (Candida flaeri or C. famata)  and bacteria (Bacillus subtilis and Corynebacterium ammoniagenes, all genetically modified) are used.

3. The starting material in the chemical production process is D-Ribose that comes from glucose by a fermentative process. In three steps it is turned into riboflavin. The genetically modified bacteria supply genes with characteristics to over express the enzymes necessary for these steps.

4. Flavin mononucleotide (FMN, a coenzyme form of B2. or 
 riboflavin 5’-phosphate) is created from riboflavin by a chemical phosphorylation process. A process also used by the body. The FMN is crystallized to separate it out from riboflavin phosphates also formed. 

5. The other coenzyme form, flavin adenine dinucleotide (FAD) often used in medical settings, can be made either chemically or by microbial processes. 

6. The microbial process uses starting material FMN and ATP, adenosine 5'triphosphate, and Candida ammoniagenes. A modified strain of Escherichia coli over expresses flavokinase, an enzyme, to complete the transformation.

Simple Explanation

What happens in easy language; A sugar source and a carbon source material are needed. Yeast or bacteria are genetically modified to increase the amount of enzymes they produce. These enzymes act on the sugar and carbon source to build the vitamin structure. (Vitamin C is created by most mammals, except humans, guinea pigs, and some monkeys, from the sugar form glucose in their bodies.)

Both the chemical method and the fermentation method of synthetic vitamin production can use natural bacteria or yeast fermentation processes at different stages of production. The primary difference than is the chemical starts from petroleum isolates and the fermentation starts with bacteria or yeast acting on sugars (molasses) and other natural carbon sources.

NOTE: Perhaps a better explanation for synthetic vitamins is vitamins that have been created by man using both natural and chemical pathways, often by mimicking how nature forms vitamins. 

The vitamin formed then can be acted upon further in the same way to build the co-enzyme form of the vitamin, much the same way the body creates these forms naturally. It is the co-enzyme form that is active participating in body processes, not the regular vitamin form.

NOTE: Some vitamin websites when talking about the differences between natural and synthetic vitamins, indirectly refer to this co-enzyme form to illustrate that isolated synthetic vitamins by themselves are not really vitamins since these co-enzyme forms have many parts and COMBINE with many other nutrients to make an enzyme.

The ability of a synthetic isolated vitamin to enter into and form these co-enzyme forms once inside the body is the true test of the differences between synthetic and natural vitamins. Again, there are differences for some vitamins and others not so much. One would imagine that this could be tested and measured to settle this issue. Wait, maybe it already has.

To be continued...