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Vitamins are good for you, right? Well, like most everything else that we consume these days, the answer is not a clear “yes” or “no”. Many different diets, including healthy plant-based ones, include vitamin supplements, as they can be an important part of rounding out vitamin and mineral intake. Vitamins can come from different sources before they end up in a bottle on your shelf, and some ways of extracting them are more controversial and less naturally occurring than others.

Like many other aspects of our lives and what we eat these days, vitamins have also been tainted by pharmaceutical and agricultural companies. Generally, we consider GMO foods to be corn, tomatoes, wheat, soy products hidden in processed foods, Hawaiian papayas even, but frequently other areas are overlooked. In fact, people are also engineering food additives, flavors, enzymes…and vitamins, meaning you might be eating GM foods without even realizing it.

Vitamins are genetically engineered through GMO crops or microorganisms such as bacteria or fungi that are altered, fermented, and left to produce additives and vitamins in large quantities.These vitamins are then separated and purified. This is supposed to be a low environmental impact, chemical-free way of producing vitamins. The National Organic program even permits these vitamins to be used in organic foods because they non-agriculture, synthetic substances. Unfortunately, this means that buying organic processed food does not necessarily mean you are avoiding GM vitamins, and GM food crops are not just potentially harmful to human health, but are causing a lot of environmental damage.

Vitamin E (produced from soy) and vitamin C (from corn) are the two additives causing the most problems for GMO opponents, even though they might now be derived from micro-organisms. They are available in increasing quantities to add to drinks and cereals, but the ethical questions around GM soy and corn products can’t be ignored, and many food producers want to see more natural vitamin production. Take a look here at how these GMO crops are affecting the environment. Vitamin C is a particularly pertinent issue, because most plants that process ascorbic acid have been contaminated by GMO corn crops, which are also sourcing maltodextrin. Maltodextrin is commonly added as a filler to vitamins and supplements, even though it has little nutritional value. When it’s sourced from GMO crops, its health value is further called in to question.

While not as bad, vitamins D and K are also offenders, unfortunately. They are not generally sources from GMOs, but they tend to be contaminated by “carriers” such as glucose and maltodextrin, meaning they still end up in your pill bottle.

When it comes to the pills themselves, that’s where things get a little crazy. Generally, there needs to be some sort of capsule or vessels that makes these vitamins and minerals easily swallow-able. And that is where the “what am I actually eating” question comes into play. Many vegans are probably already wary of their supplements and pills intake because vitamins tend to be coated in gelatin, which is not a vegan product. However, your vitamins might be containing other fillers, and even GMO additives.

In addition to the vitamins themselves, their fillers, and their capsules, sweeteners added to vitamins can also contain GMO sugars and GM corn syrups. GM sugar beets are the big offenders here, and popular kids vitamins such as Flintstones Gummies are full of GM sugars. They also contain aspartame, coloring agents, and hydrogenated oil, products many parents would be wary about giving to their children otherwise, and generally are questionable when it comes to giving children nutritious vitamin supplements.

It’s likely that these mass-produced vitamins are not helpful to human health, as our bodies have evolved over time to digest most easily what is found in nature. Vitamins are found in plants in groupings, never isolated. This diversity helps for better absorption in our systems, and the problem with synthetic vitamins is magnified when the vitamins are fat soluble, not water soluble, because that means that they are not as easily flushed out of the digestive system, and tend to hang around.

Vitamins are, of course, essential to health. It’s just important to remember that big pharmaceutical companies might not be offering you the best that there is out there in terms of naturally occurring remedies. Here is a list of vitamins and supplements to check out, all GMO free! And, when in doubt, eating fresh, organic foods is always a good way to get a vitamin hit.

Image Source: Shannon Kringen/Flickr

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