One type of vitamin D works better than another, study finds

21 Jul 2017

Scientists have known for a long time that vitamin D plays a crucial role in building strong, healthy bones, but a new study has found that one type of the vitamin – animal-derived D3 – is better for us than plant-based D2.

Carried out by researchers from the University of Surrey, the study investigated which of the two types of vitamin D - D2 or D3 - was more effective in raising levels of this vital nutrient in the blood stream.

The researchers found that vitamin D3 was twice as effective in raising levels than its counterpart D2. Vitamin D levels in women who received vitamin D3 via juice or a biscuit increased by 75 per cent and 74 per cent respectively compared to those who were given D2 through the same methods. Those given D2 saw an increase of 33 per cent and 34 per cent over the course of a 12-week period. 

The findings could prompt discussion in the scientific community over future policy and approaches to vitamin D.

The report’s key author Laura Tripkovic, said: “The importance of vitamin D in our bodies is not to be underestimated, but living in the UK it is very difficult to get sufficient levels of it from its natural source, the sun, so we know it has to be supplemented through our diet.

“However, our findings show that vitamin D3 is twice as effective as D2 in raising vitamin D levels in the body, which turns current thinking about the two types of vitamin D on its head. Those who consume D3 through fish, eggs or vitamin D3 containing supplements are twice as more likely to raise their vitamin D status than when consuming vitamin D2 rich foods such as mushrooms, vitamin D2 fortified bread or vitamin D2 containing supplements, helping to improve their long term health.”

Helen Macdonald, Professor of Nutrition and Musculoskeletal Health at the University of Aberdeen and member of the charity’s Nutrition and Lifestyle Forum said the study was “impressive and well-designed.”

“This study that clearly shows that vitamin D3, added to either of two different types of foods, increased the marker of vitamin D in the blood more effectively than vitamin D2. Also importantly, it shows that the type of food did not affect how much vitamin D was absorbed. Although it’s still not certain what this means in terms of effects on our health, it will help with future recommendations about the best ways to fortify foods with vitamin D.”

Professor Susan Lanham-New, Head of the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Surrey and who was Principal Investigator of the BBSRC DRINC funded trial said: “Vitamin D deficiency is a serious matter, but this will help people make a more informed choice about what they can eat or drink to raise their levels through their diet.” 

Vitamin D2 and D3 – what’s the difference?

Vitamin D2: Plants produce this form of Vitamin D when they are exposed to UV light  - in much the same way as our bodies naturally produce Vitamin D. The most common example is wild mushrooms or mushrooms produced under UV light. Dairy-free milk, including soya, coconut, and almond milk, are often fortified with D2.

Vitamin D3: Vitamin D3 is the biologically active form of the vitamin, found in our bodies and in animals. When sunlight hits exposed skin, a reactive process converts cholesterol into Vitamin D3.

Find out more about vitamin D here and in our factsheet

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