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Natural or Synthetic? Resolving the Controversy

December 1, 1999

6 Min Read
Natural or Synthetic? Resolving the Controversy


Natural or Synthetic? Resolving the Controversy
by Alexander G. Schauss, Ph.D.

There is controversy in the industry about the question of whethermethylsulfonylmethane (also known as dimethyl sulfone or MSM) is a "natural" or"synthetic" product. In some ingredient directories, MSM is listed as eithernatural or synthetic. How could the same product be both? By understanding how MSM ismanufactured, one can answer the question.

MSM has been around for more than 35 years. DMSO and MSM research can be traced back tothe 1950s. In fact, there are more than 55,000 studies on DMSO alone. Since DMSO breaksdown in the body to MSM and other sulfur compounds, there is considerable evidence of itssafety, along with two acute toxicity studies on MSM that basically attest to it being assafe to consume as water.

The most significant body of clinical evidence on the broad range of therapeuticapplications for MSM as a dietary supplement comes from the work led by Stanley W. Jacob,M.D., Professor of Surgery at the Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland, Ore. Dr.Jacob has studied MSM's therapeutic benefits either administered intravenously or orallyin more than 15,000 patients seen in his clinic at the medical school over the last threedecades.

Jacob is the senior author of The Miracle of MSM (Putnam: New York, 1999). Inthis book, Jacob and his co-author report how MSM has been found to significantly decreasethe discomfort associated with arthritis, back pain, headaches, athletic injuries, carpaltunnel syndrome and a myriad of autoimmune diseases such as scleroderma, lupus andfibromyalgia. This product has been so effective in helping patients with these problemssince its introduction into the natural products marketplace that MSM has almost surpassedglucosamine hydrochloride (or glucosamine sulfate) and chrondroitin sulfate as ananalgesic dietary supplement, as well as for allergy relief and as an anti-inflammatoryagent.

MSM is a simple molecule that contains eleven atoms bonded into one configuration.Thereare no isomeric forms. MSM that is manufactured by humans is indistinguishable from theMSM found in nature. MSM and DMSO are made in the United States and several foreigncountries by--essentially--the same method.

It is important to understand how MSM is made in nature to appreciate the similaritybetween this process and how chemical engineers have learned to produce MSM. Microscopicphytoplankton living in the oceans eventually die and begin to decompose. As the biomassdecays, it gives off a highly odoriferous compound called dimethylsulfide (DMS). This gasis highly volatile and taken up by our atmosphere. Samples of air taken at variouselevations in our atmosphere record the presence of DMS.

Both oxygen and sunlight react with DMS; that causes DMS to go through a series ofoxidation steps that include the formation of dimethylsulfoxide (DMSO),methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) and other sulfates. Studies on how clouds form havedemonstrated that microscopic particles of sulfate are required for water vapor in theatmosphere to form clouds. The water droplets "absorb" DMSO and MSM since bothare highly soluble in water. Eventually, when the clouds release their water droplets asrain, trace amounts of these compounds drop to the Earth to be used by plants or returnedto the sea to repeat the process.

Plants and animals take in sulfur by using the MSM and other sulfur compounds that havecome from the atmosphere. This process is essential for all life on this planet. One wouldtherefore think that plants and microscopic animals would be an ideal "natural"source for MSM since they require it and concentrate it in their tissue and cells.Unfortunately, this is not possible since the amount of MSM in plant or animal cells is nomore than a few parts per million, too little for commercial extraction. Hence, the onlyviable method for producing large commercial quantities of these life-giving sulfurcompounds is by using chemical technology.Therefore, one can not buy "natural"MSM. It is not commercially possible. Instead, one must rely on chemical engineering andthe skills of chemical engineers to produce commercial quantities of MSM.

How is MSM Made?

All MSM is formed by catalytic reaction of hydrogen peroxide with DMSO. All DMSO isformed by reaction of nitrogentetroxide and oxygen with DMS. The oxygen atoms for thesereactions come from the atmosphere, the same source used in nature.

DMS is made commercially by two competing processes. The most common method, insimplified terms, is reaction of sulfur with natural gas (methane). Methyl alcohol madefrom natural gas is combined with sulfur in the form of hydrogen sulfide or carbondisulfide in a vapor phase catalytic reaction to form DMS and methylmercaptan (MM). MM isprimarily used to make the amino acid methionine, another dietary supplement. DMS is soldfor various industrial uses or converted to DMSO. This process is generally favored due tohigh conversion yield, low energy consumption and its independence from a paper mill wastestream.

The alternate method combines sulfur with paper mill pulping liquids to make DMS.Sulfur (usually obtained as a by-product from oil refinery processing required to makeclean burning fossil fuels) is added to black liquor and heated to about 460EF under highpressure. Crude DMS is stripped from the liquor after about an hour. This process is veryenergy intensive and limited by low yield and pulping capacity. The black liquor is burnedin a recovery boiler to dispose of the remaining organic material from the wood and toreclaim the inorganic chemicals for recycle to make fresh pulping liquor. Crude DMS ispurified by a series of extraction and distillation steps to make a product for sale orconversion to DMSO. DMSO produced by either method results in an identical molecule thatis indistinguishable as to the original source of DMS.

Many manufacturers of MSM have established facilities and methods for processing. Dueto the volatility of sulfur compounds, a single-purpose facility can prevent anycross-contamination that might occur if other sulfur-containing products were produced atthe same location. Distillation processes prevent contamination, including heavy metalsand residual DMSO. Low moisture content helps prevent microbiological contamination andincreases stability and shelf life.

In summary, nature does make MSM. However, the amount of MSM found in nature in cellsas a source is on a scale so small that the only way to produce commercial quantities forhuman or veterinarian use is to rely on the manufacturing methods developed by chemicalengineers. The process nature uses to produce MSM is rather similar to how humans produceit commercially. But MSM is not "natural," rather it is a synthetic product. Theconfusion in qualifying the source of MSM as "natural" or "synthetic"comes from the fact that MSM is identical in structure whether it comes from the factoryor is found in nature.

Alexander G. Schauss, Ph.D., is a former Clinical Professor of Natural ProductsResearch at the National College of Naturopathic Medicine in Portland, Ore. For theprevious 21 years, he was director of Natural and Medicinal Products Research, LifeSciences Division, AIBMR Inc. in Tacoma, Wash. Schauss is the author of a new book, Minerals,Trace Elements and Human Health (4th Edition), Biosocial Publications, 1999.

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