DIFFERENT TYPES OF VITAMIN C
Vitamin C is probably one of the best-known and most widely used health supplements around.
If there's a twinge in the throat, or a general sense of feeling run-down, it tends to be the first port of call for many people. This might be in the hopes of, for example, fending off the “lurgy” during the cold and flu season or boosting the immune system.
Often, it is simply viewed as a good all-round maintenance supplement, for supporting health and well-being. It is known to be involved in a wide range of metabolic processes, as well as being an essential building block of collagen, which in turn builds bone, skin, blood vessels and other tissues.
Its broad application for health purposes, as a potent antioxidant and beneficial vitamin, makes it a popular choice for many health-conscious individuals and families - particularly given that vitamin C is one of the vitamins that our body can’t make itself, or store. As a result, we need to ensure a daily supply through external sources (i.e. food or supplementation).
Best food sources of vitamin C
Vitamin C is found in a wide variety of fruit and vegetables, but the most common association is with oranges. However, you may be surprised to learn that the average 70mg that a medium orange provides is actually less than many other fruit and veggies.
To pack the ultimate punch into your diet, you may want to take a look at the following vitamin C “super foods”: chilli peppers, red and green bell peppers, kale, broccoli, papaya, strawberries, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, pineapple, kiwi fruit and mango. And there are many others...
Unfortunately, much of the naturally-occurring vitamin C content of even these high-ranking fruit and vegetables can be lost following harvesting, as a result of factors such as long-distance transportation, long-term storage, refrigeration and finally the cooking process.
For instance, University of California studies have shown that vegetables can lose anywhere from 15 to 55% of vitamin C within a week. Spinach, in particular, can lose as much as 90% within the first 24 hours after harvest.
As a water-soluble vitamin, vitamin C is also easily destroyed by excessive heat and water, as well as exposure to air. In a study published in the August 2009 issue of the “Journal of Zhejiang University Science”, researchers examined the effect of various cooking methods on vitamin C retention in broccoli. Boiling caused the most loss, while steaming retained the most vitamin C. An earlier Danish study showed that boiling for just five minutes caused 45 to 64% of vitamin C to be lost.
As such, while doing their best to eat a well-balanced diet, many people also choose to top-up their vitamin C intake with a more reliable source - health supplements.
The question is, does your choice of vitamin C supplement matter? There are a number of different forms available on the market today, which can vary quite significantly in terms of both cost and (more importantly) nutrient content. So how do we know that the product we choose is really doing some good, as opposed to simply being flushed out of our bodies with little or no benefit to us (or our pocket)?
Natural vs. man-made vitamin C
Ascorbic acid is the chemical name for vitamin C and it gets that name from the disease it was traditionally known to treat - scurvy (the 'a' signifies no, and 'scorbutus' is the latin word for scurvy). Vitamin C primarily comes in two forms: L-ascorbic acid and D-ascorbic acid.
The L variety can come in two forms:
1. natural form - found in fruit and vegetables, as well as in whole food or food form vitamins (see below)
2. and synthetic forms (found in most other supplements).
This form is synonymous with vitamin C as we generally know it and carries with it all of the potential health benefits associated with this nutrient. In contrast, the D variety does not exist in nature and, while chemically identical to its counterpart, it is different on a molecular level. This difference makes it unusable by our bodies, and therefore in vitamin supplements.
Between the natural and synthetic varieties of L-ascorbic acid there are marked differences in how they are absorbed, used and reacted to by our bodies.
Synthetic (man-made) vitamin C
The vast majority of vitamin C supplements sold are of the synthetic variety, manufactured in plants by applying heat, pressure and chemicals to glucose, which converts the sugar to ascorbic acid.
Contrary to popular belief, synthetic ascorbic acid and naturally-occurring vitamin C are not structurally identical; the result is an artificial, reduced form of the natural vitamin. As we have already mentioned above, as a water-soluble vitamin, vitamin C does not do well when heated (a central part of the man-made process). When exposed to these high heats, much of the vitamin breaks down and therefore becomes largely ineffective.
What's more, being a man-made chemical (rather than a natural nutrient), it is not absorbed or used by the body in the same way as food and can actually even have a tendency to upset the stomach, irritate the digestive tract and aggravate certain medical conditions.
Food form vitamin C
So the “savvier” vitamin C shopper will hunt out what are referred to as “food form” or “food state” vitamin C supplements. In other words, supplements that contain only whole food ingredients that have been sympathetically processed, to keep them in a form that is as close to their original state as possible - no added “nasties”.
After all, it is a logical proposition that our bodies cope best with natural, unadulterated foods that contain nutrients in a form that they recognise, as opposed to synthetic vitamins or chemically polluted foods that contain substances they can't identify and don't know what to do with (other than eliminate).
What this means in practice is that food form supplements tend to be more easily absorbed and used by the body, making them more effective and offering better value for money. Another advantage is that they are slow release - a large proportion of a synthetic supplement will simply pass through the body by urination, without any benefit.