Vitamin C and Ascorbic Acid Are Not the Same Thing

We have been trained in this country to think of many things as isolated features.  Whether it is nutrition, or medicine, or even how we examine ourselves relative to the environment we live in, we are convinced that we can understand complex structures and processes by understanding the individual parts.  This belief has led to a tremendous amount of confusion, failure of medicine, and poor nutritional practices.  A classic example of this confusion is osteoporosis, a progressive decrease in bone density that creates a risk of fractures.  This condition was long treated with calcium supplementation.  However, simply supplementing with this mineral can lead to calcium being deposited in the wrong place (i.e., not in the bones), such as in the joints (leading to osteoarthritis) and in the blood vessels (leading to atherosclerosis).  Calcium has several co-factors it needs to work properly in the body, such as vitamin D, vitamin K2, and magnesium, along with saturated fat (to assist with the incorporation of calcium in the bones) and exercise (to stress the bones). Without these co-factors, some of the calcium ends up in the wrong place.  This example clearly points to the logical fallacy of thinking that a given health issue can be repaired by supplementing with a single nutritional factor.

In some cases, our level of misunderstanding goes even further.  Not only do we think of vitamin C also operating on its own, we have been taught to think of vitamin C as synonymous with ascorbic acid.  It turns out that both of these are incorrect.  First, vitamin C does not operate alone.  It requires co-factors to function and prevent its degradation.  Best known of these is vitamin P (using the older name), which are a group of water-soluble polyphenols known as flavonoids (the modern name).  These important compounds are found in varying degrees in a wide variety of fruits and vegetables.  Second, ascorbic acid is not the entirety of vitamin C, rather it can be described as the “antioxidant wrapper” that co-occurs with the other parts of vitamin C:  flavonoids, rutin, the enzyme tyrosinase, and several other factors that benefit blood vessel strength and the oxygen carrying capacity of red blood cells.  It is best not to think of vitamins as a “thing”, but rather an “activity”, which requires the interaction of many items to function.  The ascorbic acid that is added to processed food is just the ascorbic acid—it is devoid of all of the co-occurring factors of vitamin C.  By the way, synthetic ascorbic acid is manufactured through a five-step process from glucose, using either acetone or a genetically modified microbe as part of the process.

Vitamin C is critical to maintain the health of our body.  It is necessary for the formation of collagen and wound repair.  It is needed for strong blood vessel walls, lactation, and adrenal gland function.  It is an important antioxidant, protecting the cellular fluids from free-radical damage.  Further, it resupplies vitamin E with electrons (vitamin E protects the cell membranes from free-radical damage) and it neutralizes the positive charge on toxic heavy metals, ultimately helping the body to excrete them.  We could go on because vitamin C is required for over 300 metabolic functions in the body.  Acquiring the natural form (i.e., the form found in fresh food) is the most beneficial way to acquire this vitamin.

We have been further duped in this country to consider oranges and other citrus fruits to be excellent sources of vitamin C.  Although citrus fruits do contain vitamin C, there are many sources that are significantly higher.  For example, rose hips contain 10–100 times the vitamin C content as oranges (depending on the species examined).  And for the record, some species of rose contain far more vitamin C than acerola or camu camu.  During the growing season, there are a number of other wild plants that can be foraged for that contain more vitamin C than oranges, including currants and gooseberries, baked-apple berries, persimmons, elderberries, strawberries, and many greens (e.g., amaranth, goosefoot, pokeweed, wild leek, and watercress).  Even during the winter season, several evergreen trees yield high amounts of vitamin C, including eastern white pine leaves, northern white cedar leaves, red spruce leaves, eastern white pine inner bark, and balsam fir leaves (listed in ascending order of vitamin C content; all of these are easily prepared through using the material to make tea).  As well, certain uncooked animal foods, such as liver, kidneys, and adrenal glands, serve as sources of vitamin C (and were used by northern populations of indigenous people, along with other raw animal foods and stored plant foods).

Though European explorers and colonists have a long history of succumbing to vitamin C deficiency (scurvy), this vitamin is ever present on the landscape and easy to incorporate in the diet. Relying on synthetic vitamin C does not provide the full spectrum of health benefits found in naturally occurring vitamin C and misses the point that vitamins don’t act alone but rather in concert with minerals, macronutrients, various compounds, and other vitamins.  It is entirely possible (for those interested) to live in a region that experiences cold winters and never rely on the importation of warm-climate fruits to acquire the necessary vitamin C (and all of the other vitamins, for that matter).  Eastern white pine is our primary source of vitamin C during the winter season (at 4 times the vitamin C content of oranges).  Through this food (as tea) we are also supplied with large amounts of proanthocyanidins, the phenolic compounds found in red wine that promote cardiovascular health and have an antioxidant ability 20 times that of vitamin C.  I encourage you to give it a try; you might just enjoy the health benefits that eastern white pine (and other wild members of the pine family) has on your health.