Why real food vitamin C is better than ascorbic acid — and how to tell the difference

Colorful fruit - natural vitamin C

Many “natural” vitamin C supplements are really made of ascorbic acid, which can cause digestive side effects and long-term health issues. Here’s why the two are not the same.

Sunny, citrusy, whole food vitamin C. It’s an essential nutrient that supports the immune system and glowing skin with its powerful antioxidants that protect cells. 

Our grandmothers and parents remind us to stock up on vitamin C before the cold season. And it’s one of the first things we may turn to when we feel a little off.  

At Smidge®, our mantra is to get nutrients from food first, whenever possible. So peeling a juicy orange (or sinking your teeth into another food that’s rich in vitamin C) is a fantastic place to start. But if you want more through supplementation — especially if you’re on an ancestral dietary protocol and are looking for high-quality, authentic nutrients — it can be challenging to find the good stuff. That is, real food vitamin C versus the synthetic vitamin in ascorbic acid form. 

Here’s why your body doesn’t like synthetic vitamin C (ascorbic acid) 

Ascorbic acid is a human-made isolate used in myriad processed supplements that was created to cost-effectively mimic and replace naturally-occurring vitamin C found in natural food. It’s often derived from GMO corn starch, GMO corn sugar or rice starch.

Naturally-occurring vitamin C found in food contains the molecule ascorbic acid among other compounds and minerals, including rutin, bioflavonoids, K-factor, J-factor, P-factor, tyrosinase (a copper-containing enzyme) and ascorbinogen. If any of these parts are missing, there is no vitamin C and no vitamin activity. You need the whole food to receive the full vitamin, and thus, all of the benefits it yields.

Further, according to nutrition visionary Dr. Royal Lee:

“Vitamins cannot be isolated from their complexes and still perform their specific life functions within the cells. When isolated into artificial commercial forms, like ascorbic acid, these 'purified synthetics' act as drugs in the body. They are no longer vitamins, and to call them such is inaccurate.”

Ascorbic acid can cause health issues by blocking the absorption of enzymes and nutrients and causing toxic build-up.* Consuming ascorbic acid may also increase toxic iron absorption, which leads to mineral imbalance that is one of the leading causes of inflammation.* 

Here’s how Dr. Robert Thompson, MD, author of “The Calcium Lie,” explains it:

"Please remember, the (root of) accumulating toxic (levels of) iron, called ferritin, is ascorbic acid. Ascorbic acid increases this bad iron, does nothing good for normal human cells, is a prooxidant chemical, not an antioxidant, is not the (real) C vitamin… There is simply no good in taking ascorbic acid.”

And here are thoughts on ascorbic acid from Morley Robbins, founder of the mineral balancing Root Cause Protocol: 

“99.9% of the drivel on the Internet related to "vitamin C" is actually referring to ascorbic acid. Ascorbic acid, or its reduced form ascorbate, does not have the critical enzyme tyrosinase (a copper-containing enzyme). That is what makes whole food vitamin C complex so (therapeutic)!
Ascorbic acid is proven to increase iron absorption by as much as 10 times, which can be toxic. That said, whole food vitamin C does not cause iron to get overly absorbed. It allows normal iron intake and regulation.*“

How to tell the difference between whole food vitamin C supplements and fake vitamin C (ascorbic acid) 

Chart describing the difference between whole food vitamin C supplements and fake vitamin C (ascorbic acid)

The serious problem is that most people think vitamin C and ascorbic acid are the same. They are not. 

Producers of powdered or pureed fruits high in vitamin C often use various production methods that can result in the degradation of vitamin C. Then, they add ascorbic acid to the final product to replace the depleted vitamin C, and make it taste and appear as though the levels have been maintained. The vitamin C-depleting processing techniques include spray-drying, heating and freeze-drying. If you’re opting for a commercially-made vitamin C supplement, freeze-drying can retain what natural vitamin C there is left, though it’s not perfect. (But there’s another method called refractance window drying that's ideal, and we'll explain more below.)

The companies that fortify their vitamin C supplements with ascorbic acid do not disclose this fact or list it on the label, so it’s nearly impossible to tell the difference between real vitamin C and synthetic ascorbic acid. 

So if you’re holding a bottle of $5 ascorbic acid from your local drugstore and a pricey version from a popular vitamin producer, you won’t be able to discern how it’s processed.

But, it’s always an option to contact the company that makes the vitamin C supplement and ask how the product is produced and processed — and what percentage of ascorbic acid is added. Hopefully, they will be honest. 

Synthetic vitamin C recipe for ascorbic acid 

Ascorbic acid that most commercial vitamin manufacturers use in their "natural formulas" is made in China and often comes from GMO corn syrup. This thick, clear syrup is nothing more than refined pure corn sugar. 

Here’s the chemical process, aka the recipe, for ascorbic acid:

Steps 1 through 9 (starch hydrolysis): Corn starch is broken down into simple sugar (d-glucose) by the action of heat and enzymes.

Step 10 (hydrogenation): D-glucose is converted into d-sorbitol.

Step 11 (fermentation): D-sorbitol is converted into l-sorbose.

Step 12 (acetonation): Yes, they use acetone, which is acid! L-sorbose is combined with an acid at low temperatures.

Step 13 (oxidation): The product is then oxidized with a catalyst, acidified, washed and dried forming l-gluconic acid.

Step 14 (hydrolysis): L-gluconic acid is treated with hydrochloric acid forming crude ascorbic acid.

Step 15 (recrystallization): The crude ascorbic acid is filtered, purified and milled into a fine crystalline powder.

The finished product is not vitamin C, but legally can be called vitamin C, which is incredibly misleading to consumers. As we touched on above, ascorbic acid is missing at least 80% of what makes up real food vitamin C.

With real food vitamin C, the fruit or veggie just has to grow in healthy soil, free of pesticides and chemicals. 

Vitamin C on your plate 

Unlike synthetics, whole food vitamin C sources contain all the factors the body needs to derive the benefits from this vitamin.

Here are some foods that contain vitamin C:

  • Kakadu plum
  • Acerola cherry
  • Green and red peppers
  • Citrus fruits like oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruit
  • Broccoli
  • Tomatoes and tomato juice
  • Potatoes 
  • Red and green peppers
  • Kiwifruit
  • Strawberries
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Cantaloupe
  • Blackcurrants
  • Kale and spinach 
  • Papaya, permissions, lychee and guava. 

But what’s a Kakadu plum? It has the highest amount of vitamin C in the world! 

Kakadu plum (Terminalia ferdinandiana) is a small, wild-growing deciduous tree found extensively throughout the subtropical woodlands of northern and western Australia. It has broad leaves and bears an abundant crop of small, plum-like fruits that contain the highest amount of vitamin C in any food in the world! 

This dynamic fruit is about the size of a cherry. The Kakadu plum has thick skin and a small nut in its center. It's tart-tasting, not sweet like the purple plums we enjoy here in the U.S.

You likely won’t find Kakadu plums in the local grocery store. So we wanted to provide a real food vitamin C supplement that’s fresh, pure and unprocessed. 

Smige® Kakadu Plum capsules

Our Smidge® Kakadu Plum is 100% Australian and hand-harvested down under in small batches. It’s made entirely from the fresh puree of the non-GMO fruit, which is dehydrated with a gentle drying technique called refractance window drying — a unique method that uses infrared light, rather than high heat, to remove water from food. This method is unmatched in preserving the fruit's natural vitamin C. It also enables your body to absorb and use the vitamin C.

These little capsules have absolutely no fillers, additives or common allergens. They’re easy on those with sensitive digestive systems and fit right in with many dietary protocols. And you know you won’t find ascorbic acid in them. 

One serving of Smidge® Kakadu Plum extract contains nearly 75% of your daily value of vitamin C. But please note that the levels will vary, since this is a fresh, natural supplement. 

Vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin, which means it dissolves in water. Your body uses what it needs and excretes the rest through sweat and urine. 

- This blog post was written by Smidge® co-founder Dan Corrigan. Dan is trained in several dietary protocols and natural health disciplines. Our blog was reviewed by Karen Myers, Smidge® co-founder and Certified Nutritional Therapy Practitioner. Learn more about Dan and Karen here!