Vitamin C: The Long and Short of It – Part One

Vitamin C: The Long and Short of It.

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Dear Readers: In an effort to tighten up my written material on the NutriStart website, for the next while I shall be editing and revising some of my first blogs, and sending them out as newsletters. These will be brought up to date if there are any new developments in research since they were written, and will be expanded on.

Those who have read my early writings can feel free to skip these, others may have never gone that far back in the blog archives and so will not be familiar with the material, and some, who have read the material long ago, may welcome a refresher on the given topic. Enjoy, or forgive me, whichever is the more appropriate response.

VITAMIN C: WORSE THAN SUGAR?                                                       (Originally posted on August 5, 2010)

Is vitamin C worse than sugar? Of course not: this is what writers used to call a “hook”, and is now known as “click bait”. But there is some truth in that hook, and that truth applies to chewable vitamin C.

Ascorbic Acid                                                                                            

Most chewable vitamin C products do worse damage to the teeth than would chewing on sugar cubes. This is because common vitamin C is a compound known as ascorbic acid, and that level of acidity is more corrosive to tooth enamel than sugar. Sugar is also problematic, but more so because it feeds bacteria in the mouth that can cause cavities.

Not too many years ago, it was determined that the worst beverages for causing tooth decay were commercial iced-tea products, having replaced colas, the previous worst offenders.

The reason colas (and Root Beer) were so bad for tooth enamel was due to the presence of high amounts of phosphoric acid (along with copious amounts of sugar). The level of this acidic compound in colas is so high that “regular intake of cola beverages has been associated with low bone mineral density in women”.   (Source)

The problem with iced-tea products is due to the presence of a different type of acid: citric acid. Citric acid is added to these products in order to get a lemon-like tang, without the expense of using only real lemon juice.

Citric acid and ascorbic acid have similar levels of acidity, which is why chewing vitamin C tablets can cause as much tooth decay as constantly consuming commercial iced-tea, or colas.

Buffered Vitamin C                                                                                 

Now, in moderation, citric acid is not bad for you, whereas ascorbic acid is down right good for you, since it does function as vitamin C in the body. However, there is an optional form of vitamin C called buffered vitamin C.

Buffered vitamin C, also known as pH-neutral or ascorbate, is not acidic in nature, and so, when used in chewable form, is not damaging to the teeth. Although frankly, such products don’t taste quite as good, since ascorbic acid tastes tart while ascorbates taste bitter. And, of course, an ideal chewable buffered C product would not be sweetened with sugar, but with stevia, which is neutral on teeth, or xylitol which actually helps to prevent cavities.   (Source)

Now, chewing aside, let’s compare ascorbic acid to buffered vitamin C.

Ascorbic Acid vs Ascorbate                                                                                      
I had been taught, during my early days in the natural foods industry, that buffered vitamin C was retained in the body longer than ascorbic acid, and that animals produced vitamin C in the buffered form, so that it was inherently closer to a natural form of vitamin C.

However, current research does not support either of those hypotheses, regardless of what some companies promote. (I’m looking at you Ester C: “Animal studies have found Ester-C®to be better absorbed and excreted less rapidly than ascorbic acid and to have superior antiscorbutic (scurvy-preventing) activity.  These results haven’t as yet been replicated in humans.” Source)

My current research finds that, to all intents and purposes, ascorbic acid and buffered vitamin C (ascorbate) have almost identical health effects in the body. There appear to be only two real differences. First, ascorbic acid can cause side effects in some people, such as heartburn, diarrhea, or upset stomach. Secondly, ascorbates, being bound to minerals, effectively add to our mineral intake, which can be good or bad depending on quantity ingested, and our need for a given mineral. Let’s examine these two differences in more detail.

Gut Issues                                                                                                       
Now, while some people experience the negative side effects of ascorbic acid even at low doses, pretty much everyone will get a laxative effect at high doses (which can be a safe way to obtain such an effect, if one needs that).

However, back in the day, when ascorbic acid was pretty much the only vitamin C option, it was suggested by pioneer in the field of nutrition and godfather of vitamin C, Dr. Linus Pauling, that one constantly increases the dose of ascorbic acid until hitting “bowel tolerance”, and then rolls back the intake to a level just below that mark. He believed that this indicated one’s optimal therapeutic vitamin C intake. (He also believed that the only people who would never hit bowel tolerance with ascorbic acid were those born prematurely, who seemed to have an endless requirement for this nutrient.)

Now, for those who find even low doses of ascorbic acid to be problematic, buffered vitamin C is the ideal choice.

The most commonly available buffered vitamin C is calcium ascorbate, and with this form we not only are avoiding using acid (as the acid has been reacted with the mineral and effectively neutralized), but we are also getting the added buffering effect of the calcium on one’s stomach acid.

This principle has been confirmed by research: “Thus, although calcium ascorbate showed equivalent antioxidant activity to ascorbic acid, it could attenuate the gastric high acidity caused by ascorbic acid, making it suitable for consideration of use to improve the side effects of ascorbic acid. Furthermore, calcium ascorbate could be an appropriate antioxidant substrate, with increased oral bioavailability, for patients with gastrointestinal disorders.”  (Source)

Added Minerals                                                                                            
Buffered vitamin C is made by reacting ascorbic acid with a mineral, and the resulting form of mineral is essentially chelated, and thus is well absorbed. Therefore, considering the amount of mineral one will absorb has to be a factor when using high amounts of buffered vitamin C products.

While the most common form is calcium ascorbate, some products use sodium ascorbate, and others use mixed mineral ascorbates. This is of advantage if you want to take high doses of buffered vitamin C, but do not wish to ingest too much calcium, which is often already too high in many people (usually due to an excessive intake of dairy products). Multi-mineral ascorbates include magnesium ascorbate, potassium ascorbate, zinc ascorbate, etc.

So, for example, every 1,000 mg of calcium ascorbate provides around 100 mg of bioavailable calcium, which is a great way to get some bonus calcium, if you need it, but can be a problem if you are taking say 10 grams, perhaps while fighting a cold or flu bug. My father was taking roughly that much daily and could not understand why he was getting constipated since, as far as he was concerned, vitamin C in excess always had a laxative effect. I had to explain that, given the contractive nature of calcium, the extra gram of calcium he was receiving was leading to constipation (magnesium in excess, being expansive, would have the opposite effect).

Since that 10 grams of calcium ascorbate will provide around 1,000 mg of calcium to the consumer, we have more to worry about than just constipation.

Recent research indicates that 1,000 mg of calcium (in supplemental form) is a dangerous amount of calcium to ingest for long periods, having been linked to increased levels of stroke and heart disease.   (Source)

Part Two will follow next week, in which we will examine proven medical benefits of supplementing with vitamin C, and try to determine how much we should take.

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