Vitamin C is getting a lot of press and attention lately. We have received hundreds of emails with questions about it over the last month, owing to what seems likely daily news and blog articles. So it seemed like the right time for a refresher on all things vitamin C. It’s a long article, but we tried to answer all of the questions we had been getting asked the most.
The vitamin C gang says it's important to keep smiling because things will get better.
He first isolated the vitamin from the adrenal glands of animals and called it hexuronic acid. He would later rename it ascorbic acid.
For years he searched for a richer source of this anti-scorbutic (which means preventing or curing scurvy) compound in order to continue his experiments. Finally, legend has it that to avoid eating the fresh paprikas that his wife had served as a side dish, Szent-Györgyi hurriedly left the dinner table and ran to his laboratory to test the paprikas for ascorbic acid content.
Unbeknownst to many people, later in life, “He became a passionate advocate of government-sponsored cancer research after losing two close family members to the disease and spent much of his later professional life studying cancer at the cellular level at Woods Hole and for the National Foundation for Cancer Research. An outspoken opponent of military spending, nuclear weapons, and war in general, Szent-Györgyi was pessimistic about the state of modern life and expressed his sociopolitical views in his 1970 book, The Crazy Ape.”
He was an incredible human being, and if you study or practice in the field of nutrition, health, or medicine, he is definitely one of the giants whose shoulders you stand on.
Dr. Albert Szent-Györgyi
Vitamin C, commonly known as ascorbic acid or ascorbate, is a water-soluble vitamin. Unlike many other mammals, human beings cannot make their own vitamin C and must obtain it from their diet.
According to the NIH, this is how much vitamin C a person needs every day:
There are times when a person may need a higher dosage, but that is a topic for another day.
Here are just a few of them; there are many more, though:
An Important Antioxidant
Wound and Burn Healing
Increases Absorption of Iron from Plant Foods
Immune System Support
This is a complicated topic because there is a lot of misinformation and misconceptions about vitamin C and the immune system. If you want to understand the way vitamin C affects and interacts with the immune system, check out this paper.
The vitamin C gang works hard for your immune system. Make them proud by eating plenty of fruit.
We here at Rooted Nutrition feel that it is always best, whenever possible, to get your vitamins from real whole foods.
Vitamin C rich foods contain more than just vitamin C. They contain a huge variety of other beneficial compounds, such as flavonoids (sometimes called bioflavonoids). Dr. Szent Gyorgyi called these compounds “Vitamin P."
He found that these compounds supported and helped the body in ways that pure vitamin C (ascorbic acid) could not.
While flavonoids are not technically vitamins, they do provide a variety of health benefits that you cannot get from pure vitamin C. So make sure to eat those fruits and vegetables every day. Ideally, you should consume 7-10 servings of fruits and vegetables daily. While they may seem like a lot, a serving is only half a cup of cooked or one cup of raw. So a large salad could easily contain four or more servings. Make sure to get a variety of types and colors each day.
The vitamin C gang says that "No, you may not count ketchup and french fries as fruits and vegetables." I would not upset them if I were you.
So the question we get asked most is, "Do I need to take a vitamin C supplement?"
Well, the truth is that some people do and some people do not, just like with any supplement. For example, a Dietitian may recommend a vitamin C supplement for someone whose wounds are not healing correctly, while a person that eats ten servings of fruits and vegetables a day probably does not need one.
So how do you choose which vitamin C supplement to use?
There is a large variety of delivery formats and types of vitamin C to choose from, which can get pretty confusing.
Let's start our journey with the different delivery options.
- Avoid these like the plague. “Gummy vitamins” are a bad way to get any vitamin, but especially vitamin C. The acidity of vitamin C, combined with the high sugar content of most “gummy vitamins,” makes it a nightmare for your teeth. I cannot stress this enough; there are NO good reasons to take gummy supplements of any kind.
- While some vitamins are ok in chewable form, avoid vitamin C in chewable form for the same reasons you should avoid vitamin C in gummy form. The acidity of vitamin C and the high levels of sugar in most chewable vitamin C products makes them a nightmare for your teeth. Plus, they tend to be full of unwanted sweeteners and flavorings.
- Powdered vitamin C is a convenient option to add to foods or beverages. Choose one without added sweeteners and flavorings, even "natural ones. It is best to get whole-food vitamin C powder to make it easier on your teeth and stomach. Avoid getting water or moisture in the container, as it will cause it to clump up and result in the loss of some of the vitamin C in the product.
- Vitamin C is not stable in water. When left for just a few days, the liquid vitamin C products that are water or juice-based will lose their potency. If you do need to use liquid vitamin C, it is best to choose one that is oil or phospholipid based. Make sure it is also free of unwanted sweeteners and flavorings. It should also be packaged in glass, not plastic or foil packets, to avoid leeching from the packaging into the product. A better option would be a whole-food vitamin C powder. Just mix with water and drink as needed. Only mix what you need at that time. Don't make a whole bunch of liquid from the powder and leave it in the fridge, or it will lose its potency.
5. Capsules, Tablets, and Softgels
- These are the most common forms of vitamin C delivery forms. They are a great way to take vitamin C. The best ones will be free of additives, fillers, and flow agents. Avoid those with added colors, flavorings, and sweeteners.
- Choose vitamin C supplements that are packed in dark glass or plastic. Avoid those in clear containers (no supplements should be packaged in clear containers), as the light will break down the vitamin C and cause a loss of potency. Avoid storing vitamin C, as well as other supplements and medications, in areas of high humidity, like the bathroom.
The vitamin C gang says peel is the OG packaging. Who are we to argue with the experts?
The second part of our journey is the various types of vitamin C. This is where things can get confusing, but we have the Vitamin C Gang to walk us through it. We've got this!
Keep in mind that each type of vitamin C has its fans and proponents, we are not going to get in the middle of that fight, but we do have our favorites. We want you to have accurate information on all of them.
The first category of vitamin C products is pure ascorbic acid. It is the starter for material for nearly all vitamin C products. This product is generally made from some type of sugar or starch, such as corn, beet, or tapioca. It does not matter which type of sugar it is made from, as the final product contains nothing of the original sugar or plant source. While some companies may claim a version made from tapioca sugar or beet sugar is better, in the end, all that remains is pure ascorbic acid. So you can ignore all of the marketing claims when it comes to pure ascorbic acid sources.
Nearly all of the pure ascorbic acid in the world is made in China using one of two processes. There is, however, one factory left in Scotland making pure ascorbic acid. Nearly all other ascorbic acid is now made in China because of an illegal price-fixing scheme perpetrated by the Chinese government and Chinese chemical companies. This caused nearly all of the other suppliers to go out of business. Ironically the companies were actually let off the hook and avoided any penalty for doing this because the Chinese government actually required companies to violate United States anti-trust laws.
This is an incredibly unfair practice that caused many businesses to go under and the loss of many jobs while increasing the price of vitamin C for consumers. This type of behavior should be illegal but is an all too common practice by the Chinese government in many industries.
Keep in mind that at dosages of 500, 1,000, etc., milligrams of vitamin C per pill, there are no natural or whole food options available. No matter what the marketing claims or the packaging looks like, these products are not natural or whole food.
Here is a label example of a generic vitamin C 1,000 product. You can see in the supplement facts panel that it lists vitamin C (as ascorbic acid).
The second category of vitamin C products is what we like to call the ascorbic acid plus category. This product contains the same type of pure ascorbic acid as the first category but usually has something added to it, such as rose hips, bioflavonoids, or small amounts of other foods.
Proponents of this form of vitamin C claim that adding these ingredients improves the absorption and bioavailability of vitamin C. Many also claim this is a more "natural" way of taking vitamin C.
There are several problems with these types of products. The first is that the amounts of these added ingredients are too small of a quantity to have any beneficial effect. In addition, they are often high-heat spray-dried or leftover waste products from industrial food processing, which can lead to a loss of nutritional value, or treated with solvents like hexane and acetone, which no one needs in their supplements and are detrimental to your health.
Keep in mind that at dosages of 500, 1,000, etc., milligrams of vitamin C per pill, there are no natural or whole food options available. No matter what the marketing claims or the packaging looks like, these products are not natural or whole food. Adding a pinch of food or bioflavonoids does not make a product natural or whole food.
Here is an example of vitamin C with rose hips added. You can see in the supplement facts panel that it lists vitamin C (as ascorbic acid) with 15 mg of rose hips.
While it may look nice on the label to add rose hips to the product, this is a classic example of an insider industry term called "fairy dusting." This is where an ingredient is added to a product to make the label look good, but not in an amount that does anything.
Here is an example of vitamin C with bioflavonoids and other foods added. You can see in the supplement facts panel that it lists vitamin C (as ascorbic acid) with bioflavonoids and other foods added.
This is another classic example of "fairy dusting." While lemons, rose hips, and acerola cherries are all wonderful foods, 10 milligrams of each will not do anything.
In the vast majority of cases, these types of ascorbic acid plus products cost more but do not add any additional benefits. If you are choosing between a product like this and a pure vitamin C product, you would be better off saving money and buying the pure ascorbic acid product.
The third category of vitamin C products is the buffered type. You will often see names like Ester-C (Ester-c is owned by Nestle, so F*** them), calcium ascorbate, magnesium ascorbate, potassium ascorbate, or sodium ascorbate.
This is made by taking pure ascorbic acid and reacting it with a mineral. For example, reacting magnesium carbonate with ascorbic acid forms magnesium ascorbate.
This process helps to buffer the ascorbic acid and make it easier on the stomach. There is no good proof that it leads to better health outcomes than regular ascorbic acid does.
You will sometimes see it sold on its own or with added ingredients.
The next category of products is called vitamin C fatty acid metabolites. You will often see names like ascorbyl palmitate and vitamin C ester (not to be confused with Ester-c).
This is made by taking pure ascorbic acid and binding it to a fatty acid, such as palmitic acid.
This process changes vitamin C from water-soluble to fat-soluble and makes it easier on the stomach. There is no good proof that it leads to better health outcomes than regular ascorbic acid does.
You will sometimes see it sold on its own or without other ingredients added.
The sixth type of product is called liposomal vitamin C, or as it is sometimes called, lypo-spheric.
This is made by attaching the pure ascorbic acid to a phospholipid such as lecithin.
This process makes it easier on the stomach. There is no good proof that it leads to better health outcomes than regular ascorbic acid does.
You will sometimes see it sold on its own or without other ingredients added.
You will often see vitamin C listed as ascorbic acid or sodium ascorbate. In order to see if it is liposomal, you will often have to look at the nutrition facts panel and see if lecithin or phospholipids are added.
Keep in mind that not all liposomal vitamin C products are fully liposomal. Often companies will mix regular vitamin C with phospholipids instead of truly binding them.
Another issue with liposomal vitamin C is that it is often packaged in plastic or foil packages. It is not a good idea to buy an acidic liquid packaged this way because some of the compounds in the packaging may leach into vitamin C. When buying liquid liposomal vitamin C, make sure to look for it to be packaged in dark glass.
Next up are the fake whole-food vitamin C products.
These are made by mixing ascorbic acid with a small of food and using terms on the label such as food-based, food-grown, nature-identical, and some fake ones even have the gall to label their abominations whole food. Often they will cover the label with lots of different vitamin C-rich foods. Other examples include feeding the ascorbic acid to yeast, which creates some Frankenstein's monster of a product, or putting on the label that the vitamin C is entirely from a specific food when they are spiking it with pure ascorbic acid.
There are a huge number of these fake whole food products.
Misleading the public with fancy packaging and confusing labeling is all too common and is a huge problem in the supplement industry.
These are much more expensive than traditional vitamin C supplements with no added benefits.
You can read more about these types of fake wholefood vitamins here.
Example number one:
On the front of the label, this product claims to be raw and whole food. The supplement facts panel says vitamin C (from a culture of Saccharomyces cerevisiae). Saccharomyces cerevisiae is nutritional yeast. Nutritional yeast does not contain vitamin C. What the company is doing is feeding the pure ascorbic acid to yeast. There is nothing raw or whole food about doing that. Not surprisingly, this product is made by a company owned by Nestle (Garden of Life).
Check out this product:
The label is covered with oranges; it says farm fresh ingredients and made with farm fresh ingredients. A person shopping at a health food store would not be crazy to think this vitamin C was made from oranges.
Well, this product contains only a very small amount of orange, and the vitamin C is just pure ascorbic acid. No whole food vitamin C here.
We recommend against buying any vitamin C in this category as there is no additional benefit for the extra cost, and we should all do as much as possible to boycott products that have misleading marketing, especially when it comes to our health.
These fake food products are not vitamin C gang approved.
Last but certainly not least is our favorite category of vitamin C products, true whole food vitamin-C supplements.
A true whole-food vitamin C supplement is very simple. Foods rich in vitamin C are low-temperature dried or concentrated, then milled into a fine powder and packaged.
Sometimes they are made from a single food and sometimes mixed with other foods. That's it; nothing is added or taken away.
True whole-food vitamin C supplements contain all the naturally occurring compounds in the foods in their original state.
It is important that these foods are low-temperature dried in order to ensure that there is little to no loss of nutritional value or damage to other beneficial compounds.
With whole food vitamin C products, it is important that the foods are sustainably grown or responsibly wild-harvested. In addition, the people farming or harvesting these foods should be paid a fair price and be well taken care of.
Here is an example of a true whole-food vitamin C product:
The only ingredient is pure, refractance window dried Kakadu Plum flesh powder.
We spent a long time searching for a whole-food vitamin C supplement that we felt would properly carry on the legacy of an incredible man, Dr. Albert Szent-Györgyi. He believed there was far more to vitamin C than ascorbic acid, and he was right.
As he said in his Nobel Prize Speech:
“At the time that I had just detected the rich vitamin content of the paprika, I was asked by a colleague of mine for pure vitamin C. This colleague himself suffered from a serious haemorrhagic diathesis. Since I still did not have enough of this crystalline substance at my disposal then, I sent him paprikas. My colleague was cured. But later we tried in vain to obtain the same therapeutic effect with pure vitamin C.”
Dr. Szent-Györgyi was right that a pure crystalline substance would never have the benefit of real whole foods with all of their complexity. No matter how badly modern corporations want to distill food into its simplest parts and tell us it is just as good as the real thing, they will never succeed.
After a long and exhaustive search of products around the world, we found an incredible little fruit that had everything we were looking for.
The Kakadu Plum is an amazing little fruit. It's packed with antioxidants and vitamin C. It has been a traditional food of the aboriginal people for thousands of years.
Kakadu plums grow wild in three regions of Australia. However, the plums from the Northern Territory have much higher levels of beneficial compounds. We wanted to find a supplier that sourced their plums from this region and that we could trace back to the source as part of our Farm-To-Bottle Project.
It was very important for us to find a supplier who took care to ensure the plums were sustainably harvested and that the people doing the harvesting were paid a fair wage.
The flesh of the fruit contains much higher levels of nutrients and beneficial compounds than the seeds and skin, so we wanted a product made just from the flesh, even though products made from the peel and seeds are much more profitable.
Another important factor to us was the drying method. Many vitamin C supplements are spray-dried or high-temperature dried, which causes a loss of nutrient value and can degrade the fruit.
We also wanted a product that was free of fillers, binders, sweeteners, and flavorings, which are all too common in vitamin C supplements.
While we found a number of Kakadu plum supplements on the market, there were soo many issues with nearly all of them.
Poor drying methods
Made from the seeds and skin
Spiked with ascorbic acid
Sourced from regions that had lower-quality fruit
Unethical harvesting and labor practices
Not traceable, so we could not verify the sustainability or ethics of the products.
Thankfully, we were able to locate a really amazing Australian Company, Nature2U, that checked all of our boxes.
Nourishment can only come from real, whole foods. A freshly picked raspberry is more than a list of chemical compounds and will always be more than just the sum of its parts.
Rooted Nutrition is proud to support the legacy of Dr. Szent-Györgyi and, hopefully, bring awareness to a man who is rarely given credit for his incredible work.
The world's foremost experts on vitamin C, the Vitamin C Gang!