Everyone knows that vitamins are good for you—essential for healthy growth and development during childhood and for maintenance of good health in adults. But what exactly is a vitamin, and what are health food aficionados talking about when they refer to “raw" vitamins?
When most people hear the word “vitamin” they probably envision a pill bottle labeled “One-A-Day,” or “Centrum,” because the word seems to be more often associated with supplements these days than it is with food. But now that we have brought up food you are likely thinking something along the lines of “Yeah, I know that you get vitamin C from citrus, and that milk is loaded with vitamin D….”
OK, so other than that and a few other vitamin-related factoids, the average American knows very little about vitamins, raw or otherwise. For example, did you know that most of those supplement bottled vitamins are synthetic, that is, man-made chemical compounds designed to mimic the way natural vitamins react with our body processes? And this is just one of the many reasons nutritionists and healthy eating proponents encourage the consumption of raw vitamins.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here as we haven’t yet explained exactly what a vitamin is—and isn’t. A vitamin is an organic compound and vital nutrient needed by a biological organism, but one that the organism is unable to synthesize enough of on its own and must obtain through diet or other means. Vitamins—which do not include dietary minerals, essential fatty acids or essential amino acids—are classified by their biological and chemical activity within the body. And these biochemical functions are many and they are diverse, ranging from regulation of cell growth to serving as catalysts for metabolism, or from helping the body produce fatty acid to assisting with the movement of chemicals between cells. There are 13 recognized vitamins, with the generic name—vitamin “A,” for example—serving as descriptor for the compounds (known as vitamers) within. Thus, vitamin B-1 is “thiamine,” vitamin B-2 is Riboflavin, vitamin B-3 is niacin and three other compounds, and you get the picture.
Nutritionists and dietitians have long promoted the idea that a healthy, well-balanced diet provides most people with all of their essential vitamin and mineral needs. However, because there is no way to be sure, and, more as a result of ever-increasing supplement marketing, synthetic vitamins emerged to become a ubiquitous component of the American diet. And most Americans don’t even realize the synthetic nature of these vitamins.
Thus the growing push to consume “raw vitamins” isn’t so much a backlash to synthetics, as it is just part of the overall public growth and interest in healthy eating. And there are actually two different forms of “raw vitamin:” that which you get by eating raw food, and the growing number of available vitamin supplements that are derived from organic whole food rather than synthesized from chemicals in a factory.
The “raw food” movement evolved in part from the recognition that processing and heating of some food items causes them to lose or otherwise change the bioavailability of certain vitamins and minerals. The key word here being “certain”, because while heat breaks down vitamin B1, vitamin B5, vitamin B9 and vitamin C, it doesn’t break down other vitamins. And in a reverse, of sorts, some food items release more healthy nutrients when heated than when left raw.
As you are probably starting to surmise, figuring out which foods have which vitamins, and how various forms of processing and cooking may impact their vitamin content and bioavailability is quite complicated. Additionally, following a raw food plan might mean you have to eat some foods that definitely need a little heat to be made edible, like say, brussels sprouts, kale and turnip greens (yeah, and good luck getting your kids to eat some of these raw foods). Anyhow, Precision Nutrition has posted a handy guide—10 ways to get the most nutrients from your food—that can help you start figuring out the intricacies of raw food and other vitamin preserving tricks.
In the meantime, while you are trying to figure out those intricacies, you can ensure adequate natural vitamin uptake by consuming raw vitamin supplements. And we would recommend that you seek out such vitamin supplements in a health food store rather than a regular grocery store or pharmacy, as, by law, vitamins can be labeled as “natural” if they contain as little as 10 percent of the natural form of the vitamin.
And this probably goes a long way to explaining why 95 percent of all vitamin supplements still fall under the synthetic umbrella, despite the ever-increasing interest in real natural foods.
Thus, if you are trying to get around the synthetics, you need to seek out “raw” rather than “natural” vitamins. And by raw, the natural vitamins should be uncooked, untreated, unadulterated; have no binders or fillers; contain 100 percent active ingredients; and include live enzymes and probiotics.
If you want to learn more about the difference between natural (that is “raw”) and synthetic vitamins, Sunwarrior has put together a rundown—Natural Vs. Synthetic Vitamins: What’s the Big Difference?—between both for all 13 vitamins.
Just considering that synthetic vitamin B3 is made from coal tar, ammonia, acids, 3-cyanopyridine and formaldehyde might be enough to make you want to take a closer look.
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