16 October 2014

History of the vitamin industry: part 2

In the second part of our series on the history of the vitamin industry, we explore the synthesis and mass production of vitamins.

The discovery of the existence and essential qualities of vitamins in the early 20th century was a major breakthrough that was to be the beginning of a multi-billion dollar international pharmaceutical business.

But this was only the beginning . . .

Once the vitamins had been identified and given alphabetical names, scientists had to face the difficult task of isolating the vitamins and finding the perfect balance for a healthy diet.

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But there was another problem: vitamins, as found in the food we eat, are complicated chemical compounds that react under certain circumstances in the body. Ideally, they shouldn’t be separated from their source, as they’re part of the whole.

Vitamins as we know them

As we mentioned, under ideal circumstances vitamins should be contained in the food we eat. But, sometimes, however, it can be difficult or even impossible to obtain these foods.

It wasn’t until 1941 before all 13 vitamins were identified – and the race started to chemically synthesise vitamins for production.

Interestingly, there’s no specific event that can mark the discovery and isolation of vitamin A, which is necessary for growth, reproduction, immunity and vision. It took more than 100 years of research to describe and understand the vitamin properly – from the moment it was identified as “something in milk essential for nutrition” in the 1880s, to the discovery of a growth-supporting “accessory factor” that became known as “fat-soluble A” in 1918, and then “vitamin A” in 1920.  

It took 100 years of painstaking research for vitamin B12 to become a household name. But it was the work done by Minot and Murphy on pernicious anaemia, and the discovery that liver healed many patients’ illnesses which led to the first breakthrough. Dorothy Hodgkin, Nobel Prize winner in 1964, crystallised and characterised B12 in the laboratory and completed the process.

The existence of vitamin C, vital to the growth and health of bones, teeth, gums, ligaments and blood vessels, was long expected. It was known that fresh fruit and vegetables were necessary in the diet, but the link couldn’t be made until, in the 1920s, Albert Szent-Györgyi made connections others didn’t.

He proved that hexuronic acid, renamed ascorbic acid to reflect its anti-scurvy properties, was indeed the illusive vitamin C.

Synthesis and mass production of vitamins

Between 1925 and 1955, all the vitamins that had been identified at this stage were isolated and synthesised, although research into the complete function of the various vitamins is still an ongoing process.

While almost all vitamins can be derived from a diet rich in plant and animal products, they can also be produced synthetically in a laboratory.

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Most vitamins you find on the store shelf are synthetic, which are far cheaper and easier to mass produce than natural derivatives. In chemical terms, there’s no difference between the purified vitamins from plant or animal sources and those produced synthetically.

However, vitamin tablets often contain additives used to both preserve the vitamins in the manufacturing process and to assist the body to digest them.

The manufacturing process of vitamins

The beginning of the manufacturing process of a vitamin starts when the manufacturer buys the vitamin in its raw form. It’s then subjected to analysis to test its potency and possible bacterial contamination.

Some vitamins arrive as a fine powder. If not, the first step is to grind it into a powder and pre-blend it with a filler ingredient to produce an even granule.

To achieve a tablet form, the powder has to go through a process where it’s either milled to the right size or, in some cases where a “wet granulation” process is needed, mixed with a variety of cellulose particles, wetted and dried, and again run through a mill to be weighed and mixed.

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Once this is done, all the ingredients are put into a mixer where they’re mixed for up to half an hour before they’re again checked in a laboratory to ensure the ingredients are all evenly distributed.

It’s only after this that the vitamin formula is moved to the tablet-making machine, where it’s eventually compressed into tablets. These are then checked to ensure they’re the right weight. From here, they’re passed on to the “hopper” machine, where they’re precisely measured and split into gelatine capsules before being run through a polishing machine.

After being inspected again, they’re then ready to be coated. This helps make the vitamin easier to swallow and also gives it a pleasant taste or appealing colour. The capsules are often made with an “enteric coating” – a chemical coating designed to oppose gastric acid, allowing the capsules to be digested in the intestine rather than the stomach.

The final process is the packaging, which is done by a machine. And at last, the vitamins are ready for distribution.

Read More:

7 reasons to use coconut oil
The benefits of brown rice protein
'Superfoods' everyone should eat

Image: Woman with vitamin icons circulating around her head from Shutterstock.

1.    Wilmer Eye Institute, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. On the 'discovery' of vitamin A.
2.    School of Biochemistry and Immunology, Trinity Biomedical Sciences Institute, Dublin. The discovery of vitamin B(12).
3.    American Chemical Society National Historic Chemical Landmarks. The Discovery of Vitamin C by Albert Szent-yörgyi.
4.    George Wolf. Department of Nutritional Sciences and Toxicology, University of California.
5.    Angela Woodward. How vitamins are made.


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