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Do You Know Your Vitamin History?

Finding the Links between Food & Health

Earlier this week, I was working on a project that required me to research the history and discovery of vitamins. As a history buff, this was a fun assignment. I admit that while I know about the uses and health benefits of nutritional supplements, I didn’t know a lot about the history of vitamins before I started my research. What I found was interesting and thought it was worth sharing. After all, you never know when you’ll be on Jeopardy or Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and all that stands between you and load of cash is a piece of vitamin trivia!

Long before the discovery of vitamins, people established a link between what they were eating and their health. Our ancestors may not have known specifically what it was about food that made them feel better, but through trial and error, discoveries were made.

The first food/health breakthrough came from the ancient Egyptians who cured nyctalopia, or night blindness, by eating liver.  The inability to see in low light they experienced is now known to be caused by a deficiency in vitamin A and liver is a natural source of vitamin A. 

Centuries later, there was another big breakthrough – the use of lemons and limes to prevent scurvy (later discovered to be caused by vitamin C deficiency). A disease that causes gum bleeding, poor wound healing, severe pain and death, scurvy was common aboard ships in the 1700s, where sailors, on long voyages, didn’t have access to fresh foods. In 1749, Dr. James Lind discovered citrus fruits prevented scurvy, which we now know is because of their vitamin C content.

Another ailment common among sailors, as well as Asians and prisoners, was beriberi. This syndrome caused mental confusion, muscle wasting, fluid retention, high blood pressure, walking difficulties and heart disturbances. Today we know that beriberi is caused by severe deficiency of vitamin B — specifically, thiamin (vitamin B1). In 1987, Dutch physician Christian Eijkman discovered that adding unpolished rice husks to the diet prevent beriberi.

While several physicians, researchers and experts had linked healthy eating to healthy bodies, vitamins weren’t actually discovered until 1912, when Dr. Casimir Funk detected active properties in unpolished rice husks. He called them “vitamines” from the Latin vitals (vitally important) and amines (organic derivatives of ammonia). It was Funk’s theory that all active substances were nitrogen-containing amines. While that theory was eventually proved wrong, the name “vitamins” stuck, minus the e.

So while the link between food and health had been established over centuries and the term “vitamine” given, not much was specifically known about the science behind it. But much has changed in the 100 years since Funk’s discovery.

Discovering the Benefits of Vitamins

Vitamins weren’t actually discovered until 1912, when Dr. Casimir Funk called active properties in unpolished rice husks “vitamines”. The “e” was dropped years later when it was discovered that vitamins were not nitrogen-containing amines. A year after Funk coined the term vitamine, scientists at Yale and the University of Wisconsin discovered the first vitamin when studying animal diets with butterfat and cod liver oil.

By the 1920s, significant strides were being made in the world of vitamin research. During this decade, vitamin C (called “water soluble C”) was discovered as the antiscorbutic factor in food; vitamin D by irradiating food to treat rickets; vitamin E in vegetable oils; and vitamin K in a cholesterol-rich diet that was fed to research chickens. During the 1930s, manufacturing of the “vitamin pill” began when Swiss researchers discovered a way to artificially synthesize vitamin C in 1935. They mass produced and marketed the first vitamin C supplement under the name Redoxon.

In the nearly 75 years since the vitamin C pill was marketed, large steps have been made in the vitamin and supplement world. Along with vitamins, supplements for minerals, herbal extracts, probiotics and more are sold. Natural health products continue to become more popular, with aisles at local grocery and department stores dedicated to the sale of these items. There has also been an increase in the sale of organic foods, natural home products as well as the number of people “going green”.

Today, most scientists and medical professionals agree that there is a place for vitamin, mineral and herbal supplements in health. It’s widely known that the standard American diet does not deliver all the vitamins and minerals we need on a daily basis. Whatever your health goals are, getting the right nutrients plays a key role in lifelong wellness. Trying to figure out which supplements to take isn’t always easy, but if you need help getting started or just want to learn more, check out our guide to the 7 Basic Supplements (Plus Vitamin D) for Good Health.

 

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