Is Vitamin C an Organic Compound?

Ascorbic Acid: Organic or Inorganic

Vitamin C is an organic compound, whether it comes from a fruit or a lab.
Vitamin C is an organic compound, whether it comes from a fruit or a lab. Peter Dazeley, Getty Images

Question: Is vitamin C an organic compound?

Answer: Yes, vitamin C is an organic compound. Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid or ascorbate, has the chemical formula C6H8O6. Because it is comprised of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms, vitamin C is classified as organic, whether or not it comes from a fruit, is made within an organism, or is synthesized in a laboratory.

What Makes Vitamin C Organic?

In chemistry, the term "organic" refers to carbon chemistry.

Basically, when you see carbon in a compound's molecular structure, this is a hint you're dealing with an organic molecule. However, simply containing carbon isn't sufficient, as some compounds (e.g., carbon dioxide) are inorganic. Basic organic compounds also contain hydrogen, in addition to carbon. Many also contain oxygen, nitrogen, and other elements, although these aren't essential in order for a compound to be classed as organic.

You may be surprised to learn vitamin C isn't just one specific compound, but rather, a group of related molecules called vitamers. The vitamers include ascorbic acid, the ascorbate salts, and oxidized forms of ascorbic acid, such as dehydroascorbic acid. In the human body, when one of these compounds is introduced, metabolism results in the presence of several forms of the molecule. The vitamers act primarily as cofactors in enzymatic reactions, including collagen synthesis, antioxidant activity, and wound-healing.

The molecule is a stereoisomer, where the L-form is the one with biological activity. The D-enantiomer is not found in nature, but can be synthesized in a lab. When given to animals that lack the ability to make their own vitamin C (such as humans), D-ascorbate has less cofactor activity, even though it is an equally potent antioxidant.

What About Vitamin C from Pills?

Man-made or synthetic vitamin C is a crystalline white solid derived from the sugar dextrose (glucose). One method, the Reichstein process, is a combined microbial and chemical multi-step method of producing ascorbic acid from D-glucose. The other common method is a two-step fermentation process. Industrially synthesized ascorbic acid is chemically identical to vitamin C from a plant source, such as an orange. Plants typically synthesize vitamin C by enzymatic conversion of the sugars mannose or galactose into ascorbic acid. Although primates and a few other kinds of animals don't produce their own vitamin C, most animals do synthesize the compound and can be used as a source of the vitamin.

So, "organic" in chemistry has nothing to do with whether a compound was derived from a plant or an industrial process. If the source material was a plant or animal, it doesn't matter whether the organism was grown using organic processes, such as free-range grazing, natural fertilizers, or no pesticides. If the compound contains carbon bonded to hydrogen, it's organic.

Is Vitamin C an Antioxidant?

A related question concerns whether or not vitamin C is an antioxidant.

Regardless of whether it's natural or synthetic and whether it's the D-enantiomer or the L-enantiomer, vitamin C is an antioxidant. What this means is that ascorbic acid and the related vitamers are capable of inhibiting oxidation of other molecules. Vitamin C, like other antioxidants, acts by being oxidized itself. This means vitamin C is an example of a reducing agent.

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Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "Is Vitamin C an Organic Compound?" ThoughtCo, Nov. 1, 2015, thoughtco.com/is-vitamin-c-an-organic-compound-608777. Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. (2015, November 1). Is Vitamin C an Organic Compound? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/is-vitamin-c-an-organic-compound-608777 Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "Is Vitamin C an Organic Compound?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/is-vitamin-c-an-organic-compound-608777 (accessed November 21, 2017).