16 October 2014

History of the vitamin industry: part 1

Vitamins have been part of the human diet since time immemorial, but it’s only in the past 100 years that we’ve discovered their existence – and their importance. We'll explore the history of vitamins in three parts...

At the turn of the 20th century, illnesses such as scurvy, beriberi and rickets were widespread and described as diseases, but after close study by a varied group of scientists in Europe, it was realised that such afflictions were, in fact, a basic lack of what became known as vitamins.

Today, vitamins – organic substances that, in small amounts, support normal physiologic function – form part of one of the largest global industries.

The discovery of vitamins

Polish-born biochemist Casmir Funk has been credited with coining the phrase “vital amine”, which became “vitamin”. After reading an article by Dutchman Christiaan Eijkman, which indicated that people who ate brown rice were less likely to succumb to beriberi, he isolated the substance that later became known as vitamin B3 (niacin) and suggested that it may also cure rickets, scurvy and pellagra.

Funk later suggested that there were other nutrients, vitamins B1, B2, C and D. But, rather than this being a major breakthrough in nutrition, the process of discovery was long and drawn out by setbacks, contradictions, refutations and chicanery, the end result being achieved by epidemiologists, physicians, physiologists and chemists.

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Scurvy was a painful illness that mainly affected sailors. As early as 1747, Scottish physician James Lind conducted what’s thought to be the first-ever clinical trial. He joined sailors on a long trip and gave a controlled group extra lemon juice with their meals, while the remaining sailors ate the normal rations.

His group proved beyond doubt that fresh lemon juice cured scurvy. But it wasn’t until 1795 that the Royal Navy made lemon or lime juice part of daily rations, and it wasn’t until 1928 that vitamin C was isolated and identified.

Funk's predictions made in 1912 were fulfilled within 25 years and today the word “vitamin” is now universally familiar. By 1941, all 13 vitamins had been identified and characterised.

Investigations into how fresh fruits gave relief from scurvy were conducted by numerous physicians and pharmacologists in the early 1930s. In 1932, physiologist Albert Szent-Gyorgyi of Hungary discovered the chemical ascorbic acid, which aids the body to efficiently use carbohydrates, fats and protein.

This proved to be a breakthrough that was one of the foundations of modern nutrition.

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Here’s a list of vitamins and the researchers who discovered them:

  • Vitamin A: Elmer V. McCollum and M. Davis during their research between 1912 and 1914.
  • Vitamin B: Elmer V. McCollum between 1915 and 1916. Vitamin B1 by Casimir Funk in 1912. Vitamin B2 by D. T. Smith and E. G. Hendrick in 1926.
  • Niacin: Conrad Elvehjem in 1937.
  • Folic acid: Lucy Wills in 1933.
  • Vitamin B6: Paul Gyorgy in 1934.
  • Vitamin C: Scottish surgeon James Lindin observed in 1747 that a nutrient in citrus foods (vitamin C) prevented scurvy. This was rediscovered by Norwegians A. Hoist and T. Froelich in 1912.
  • Vitamin D: Edward Mellanby in 1922 during rickets research.
  • Vitamin E: American researchers Herbert Evans and Katherine Bishop in green leafy vegetables in 1922.

Vitamin deficiencies

Vitamins are undeniably necessary for human health, regardless of whether you get them from natural food sources or supplements. Yet, despite the availability of vitamins in their many forms, many people are still at risk of vitamin deficiencies, which can, of course, result in disease.

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Some of the diseases that result from vitamin deficiencies include:

  • Beriberi: Caused by a deficiency of vitamin B1 or thiamine. Symptoms can include swelling or oedema of the legs, extreme weakness, headache, dizziness, palpitations and loss of appetite. It’s most commonly found in people who have a primary diet of refined rice.
  • Ariboflavinosis: Caused by a deficiency of riboflavin or vitamin B2. Symptoms include lesions at the corner of the mouth, and inflammation of the tongue and mouth.
  • Photophobia: Caused by a deficiency of vitamin B2. Symptoms include the eyes being sensitive to bright sunlight.
  • Pellagra: Caused by a deficiency of vitamin B3 or niacin. Symptoms include dermatitis (dry skin), diarrhoea and dementia. It can also cause disorientation and hallucinations, and is most commonly found in populations with a diet predominantly featuring maize.
  • Scurvy: Caused by a deficiency of vitamin C or ascorbic acid. The symptoms include bleeding gums, loosening of teeth, swollen and painful joints, bleeding in tissues and general fatigue.
  • Rickets: Caused by a deficiency of vitamin D, calcium and phosphorus. Symptoms include soft, “bendy” bones leading to knock knees or bow legs and “pigeon chest”. It also leads to growth retardation.
  • Osteomalacia: Also caused by a deficiency of vitamin D and the minerals calcium and phosphorus in adults. This most commonly occurs in women after pregnancy, leaving them more vulnerable to fractures, especially of the pelvic bones, ribs and thigh bones.
  • Bleeding disease: Caused by vitamin K deficiency, which causes delayed blood clotting. This leads to profuse bleeding.
  • Pernicious anaemia: This is caused by a deficiency of vitamin B12, which is essential for the formation and maturation of the red blood cells that carry haemoglobin. This, in turn, carries oxygen.

A deficiency in any of the vitamins isn’t ideal, although it’s easily avoided by eating a healthy, varied diet rich in fresh produce. In instances where this isn’t possible, it’s important to meet the daily recommended amounts for vitamins through supplementation.

Note that vitamins are either water-soluble (the B vitamins as well as vitamin C) or fat-soluble (vitamins A, D, E and K). The water-soluble vitamins should be replaced every day, as excess amounts are lost through urine.

Read More:

The magic of Chia
What’s so 'super' about superfoods?
The many wonders of Goji Berries

Image: Collage of various foods containing vitamins from Shutterstock.

1.    Paul A. Kimpel. University of Florida: History of dietary supplements
2.    Kenneth J. Carpenter. The Nobel Prize and the Discovery of Vitamins
3.    Louis Rosenfeld. Vitamine—vitamin. The early years of discovery. Clinical Chemistry
4.    Vitamin and Mineral Deficiencies. Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition.


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