Is MSM Natural or Synthetic? Resolving the Controversy
by Alexander G. Schauss, Ph.D.
controversy In the industry about the question of whether
methylsulfonylmethane (also known as dimethyl sulfate or MSM is a
"natural" or "synthetic" product. In some
ingredient directories, MSM is listed as either natural or
synthetic. How could the same product be both? By understanding how
MSM is manufactured, one can answer the question.
been around for more than 35 years. DMSO and MSM research can be
traced back to the 1950s. In fact, there are more than 55,000
studies on DMSO alone. Since DMSO breaks down in the body to MSM and
other sulfur compounds, there is considerable evidence of its
safety, along with two acute toxicity studies on MSM that basically
attest to it being as safe to consume as water.
significant body of clinical evidence on the broad range of
therapeutic applications 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 orally in more than 15,000 patients seen in his clinic at the
medical school over the last three decades.
the senior author of The Miracle of MSM
and MSM: The Definitive Guide. In
these books, Jacob and his co-authors report how MSM has been found to
significantly decrease the discomfort associated with arthritis,
back pain, headaches, athletic injuries, carpal tunnel syndrome and
a myriad of auto-immune diseases such as scleroderma, lupus and
product has been so effective in helping patients with these
problems since its introduction into the natural products
marketplace that MSM has almost surpassed glucosamine and
chondroitin as an analgesic
dietary supplement, as well as for allergy relief and as an anti
MSM is a
simple molecule that contains eleven atoms bonded into one
configuration. There are no isomeric forms. MSM that is manufactured
by humans is indistinguishable from the MSM found in nature.
important to understand how MSM is made in nature to appreciate the
similarity between this process and how chemical engineers have
learned to produce MSM. Microscopic phytoplankton living in the
oceans eventually die and begin to decompose. As the biomass decays,
it gives oil a highly odoriferous compound called dimethylsulfide
(DMS). This gas is highly volatile and taken up by our atmosphere.
Samples of air taken at various elevations in our atmosphere record
the presence of DMS.
and sunlight react with DMS; that causes DMS to go through a series
of oxidation steps that include the formation of dimethylsulfoxide
(DMSO), methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) and other sulfates. Studies on
how clouds form have demonstrated that microscopic particles of
sulfate are required for water vapor in the atmosphere to form
droplets "absorb" DMSO and MSM since both are highly
soluble in water. Eventually, when the clouds release their water
droplets as rain, trace amounts of these compounds drop to the Earth
to be used by plants or returned to the sea to repeat the process.
Plants and animals take in sulfur by using the MSM and other sulfur
compounds that have come from the atmosphere. This process is
essential for all life on this planet. One would therefore 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 no more
than a few parts per million, too little for commercial extraction.
only viable method for producing large commercial quantities of
these life-giving sulfur compounds is by using chemical technology.
Therefore, one can not buy "natural" MSM. It is not
commercially possible. Instead, one must rely on chemical
engineering and the 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 is formed by reaction of nitrogentetroxide and oxygen
with DMS. The oxygen atoms for these reactions come from the
atmosphere, the same source used in nature.
DMS is made commercially by two competing processes. The most common
method, in simplified terms, is reaction of sulfur with natural gas
(methane). Methyl alcohol made from natural gas is combined with
sulfur in the form of hydrogen sulfide or carbon disulfide In a vapor
phase catalytic reaction to form DMS and methylmercaptan (MM). MM is
primarily used to make the amino acid methionine, another dietary
supplement. DMS is sold for various industrial uses or converted to
DMSO. This process is generally favored due to high conversion yield,
low energy consumption and its independence from a paper mill waste
stream. It is the least "natural" of the two processes.
The alternate method for manufacturing DMSO which is used in the
production of OptiMSM (Cardinal Nutrition) combines sulfur with paper mill pulping liquids
to make DMS. Sulfur is
added to black liquor and heated to about 460 F under high pressure.
Crude DMS is stripped from the liquor after about an hour. This
process is very energy intensive and limited by low yield and pulping
capacity. The black liquor is burned in a recovery boiler to dispose
of the remaining organic material from the wood and to reclaim the
inorganic chemicals for recycle to make fresh pulping liquor. Crude
DMS is purified by a series of extraction and distillation steps to
make a product for sale or conversion to DMSO.
Due to the volatility of sulfur compounds, only a single
purpose facility can prevent any cross-contamination that might occur
if other sulfur-containing products were produced at the same
location. ONLY ONE manufacturer has such dedicated facilities:
Cardinal Nutrition, the maker of OptiMSM. Distillation processes prevent contamination including heavy
metals and residual DMSO. Low moisture content helps prevent
microbiological contamination and increases stability and shelf life.
In summary, nature does make MSM. However, the amount of MSM found in
nature in cells as a source is on a scale so small that the only way
to produce commercial quantities for human or veterinarian use is to
rely on the manufacturing methods developed by chemical engineers. The
process nature uses to produce MSM is rather similar to how humans
produce it commercially. But MSM is not "natural," rather it
is a synthetic product. The confusion 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 factory
or is found in nature.
Alexander C. Schauss, Ph.D., is a former Clinical Professor of Natural
Products Research ad tile National College Of Naturopathic Medicine in
Portland, Ore. For the previous 21 years, he was director of Natural
and Medicinal Products Research, Life Sciences Division, AIBMR Inc. in
Tacoma, Wash. Schauss is the author of Minerals, Trace Elements
arid Human Health (4th Edition), Biosocial Publications, 1999.
Natural Products Industry
Reprinted with permission from Cardinal