Vitamin C, Whole Food Vs. Synthetic: Does It Matter?
Debunking the myth that vitamin C in plants is found in a special "tyrosinase complex."
Many people argue that whole food vitamin C is fundamentally different from ascorbic acid.
Whole food vitamin C is preferable because whole foods provide many important nutrients. However, whole food vitamin C is not something fundamentally different from ascorbic acid.
As an example, Morley Robbins writes in Cu-RE Your Fatigue: The Root Cause and How To Fix It On Your Own (p. 168, 209-210):
Real vitamin C as it occurs in nature (food-based) is like a complete car that has an engine, a steering wheel, four wheels, and a shell. And in that whole food vitamin C-complex, the “engine” is an enzyme called tyrosinase, which is one of the most important copper-based enzymes in our body. . . . Compared to the real vitamin C-complex, ascorbic acid and ascorbate are simply the shell of the car, without the engine, nor any other moving parts. . . . Nor is the tyrosinase enzyme all that synthetic vitamin C is lacking. It also lacks the polyphenols rutin and the flavanone glycoside hesperidin (sometimes referred together as “vitamin P”), vitamin K, and factor J (choline), all of which are found in whole food vitamin C-complex, and, along with tyrosinase, are essential co-factor nutrients that work synergistically with ascorbigen, the natural form of L-ascorbic acid that whole food vitamin C-complex also contains. Without these essential co-factors, L-ascorbic cannot be absorbed, which is why 90 percent of synthetic vitamin C supplements are rapidly excreted by the body soon after they are consumed. That should suffice to prove that the human body does not want synthetic vitamin C!
None of this makes any sense.
In plants, vitamin K is bound in the photosystem complexes as part of the machinery of photosynthesis, and vitamin C is not.
The best plant sources of choline are nuts and seeds, which have among the least vitamin C.
Flavonoids universally have low absorption and are treated as xenobiotics, like toxins and drugs, to be eliminated from the body. Rutin from onions, for example, is about 7% absorbed and then metabolized.
By contrast, 70-90% of ascorbic acid is absorbed at doses in the hundreds of milligrams and this falls to 50% at doses higher than one gram. Urinary loss of ascorbic acid is minimal until intakes reach 80 milligrams per day, and then increases proportional to the dose thereafter.
The benefits of flavonoids are mediated primarily through the principle of hormesis, which is the principle that a little of something bad for you can be good for you by improving your defenses. The benefits of vitamin C, by contrast, are that it is an essential cofactor for many enzymes and a critical part of the antioxidant system.
Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) cannot possibly be found universally in a complex with tyrosinase.
First, ascorbic acid does not form complexes with enzymes for which it is a cofactor. Some nutrient do. For example, riboflavin is usually present as FAD in a “prosthetic group” that is complexed to the enzyme and would have to be dissociated during digestion. Vitamin C is a soluble redox factor that travels between different enzymes or other substances transferring electrons from one to another.
It is a cofactor for ferric chelate reductase, violaxanthin desoxidase, (converts violaxanthin to zeaxanthin, which protects photosystem II from photo-inhibition by dissipating excess excitation energy), l-aminocyclopropane-1-carboxylic acid oxidase (involved in the synthesis of plant hormone ethylene), ascorbate oxidase (has a role in cell division), ascorbate peroxidase (converts H2O2 to H2O and O2), and monodedydroascorbate reductase, which recycles it.
There is a hypothesized role in synthesis of abscisic acid, gibberellins, and catabolism of auxins.
Ascorbic acid is a direct antioxidant and electron donor to photosystems and the respiratory chain, especially under stressed conditions.
It is ubiquitously found in all plant tissues except seeds that mature in a highly dehydrated state.
Its concentrations correlate mainly with photosynthetic activity.
This paper covers its distribution in plant tissues:
The highest concentrations are in peroxisomes and cytosol, lowest in vacuoles, and all other organelles are intermediate.
The crystal structure of tyrosinase contains copper, but not vitamin C:
Vitamin C inhibits tyrosinase:
In Cure Your Fatigue: How balancing 3 minerals and 1 protein is the solution that you're looking for, Robbins cites this paper as showing that ascorbic acid is capable of “breaking down ceruloplasmin”:
What they found was that it could be reduced using vitamin C, which was “completely reversible in the presence of oxygen.”
He cites this study showing that vitamin C can reduce copper and ceruloplasmin in the serum:
The design of the study is poor, with no proper control. However, it suggests that taking 500 milligrams of vitamin C every day with each of three meals, for a total of 1500 milligrams per day, can decrease serum copper by about 5% and ceruloplasmin by about 25% over two months.
Ascorbic acid can donate electrons, and as such can shift iron and copper into oxidation status such that copper absorption is inhibited and the absorption of plant iron is enhanced.
Ascorbic acid can also shift oxidation states of these minerals inside the body, and this can remove copper from ceruloplasmin and help deliver it to cells, but can interact with overloaded iron by making it more likely to cause oxidative stress.
All of these flow straightforwardly from vitamin C as a reductant, that is, an electron donor, and there is no evidence whatsoever that natural vitamin C from plant or animal foods has a different structure than synthetic ascorbic acid.
One good reason to avoid synthetic ascorbic acid is that it is made from GMO corn and probably contaminated with glyphosate, though you can find non-GMO ascorbate on Amazon.
The main reason to use whole food vitamin C, though, is that no one needs more than 200-400 mg per day except in the cases of sepsis or chemotherapy, and this is easily and affordably gotten from food or from whole food supplements, which contain many other nutrients that have benefits, and it is very likely there is value to having some of them balanced with the vitamin C.
For vitamin C dosing guidelines and balancing concerns, see these two articles:
In conclusion, whole food vitamin C is better for most use cases, but this is not because it exists in some kind of special structural complex. It is because most people do not need doses higher than those that can be obtained affordably from whole food supplements, and the whole food supplements contain many other good things in them. I personally use one capsule of Paleovalley whole food vitamin C per day.
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