Vitamin Development History
At this point you may be wondering what exactly a vitamin is and how we initially became aware of how important they are to our health. A concise answer to the first part of that question is that vitamins are organic micro-nutrients essential to normal human metabolism. Unlike fats, carbohydrates, and some proteins, vitamins are not metabolized to provide energy. Most are not manufactured by the body but are present in minute quantities in natural foodstuffs. Each of these naturally occurring organic compounds performs a specific vital function and is required by the body for disease prevention and good health.
The known vitamins are divided into four fat-soluble types (A, D, E, and K) and nine water-soluble types (eight B vitamins and vitamin C). The fat-soluble vitamins can be stored in the body and do not need to be ingested every day. Because the fat-soluble vitamins are not eliminated from the body through the urine, ingesting too much of them can create toxicities. The water-soluble vitamins are more easily eliminated and can be taken in larger amounts without much danger of toxicity. Vitamin C and the eight B vitamins (except for vitamin B-12 and folic acid) are water soluble. They cannot be stored and must be consumed frequently for optimal health.
As an initial convention, vitamins were given letters to go with their chemically defined names. Not many people may know about the form of vitamin E d-alpha tocopheryl succinate, but most people know what “Vitamin E” is and how it can be used. Some nutritional factors were originally given “B” names but turned out not to act as vitamins at all. You may not have heard of vitamins B-4, 7, 8, 9, 10, and 11, which were ultimately rejected as vitamin factors.
Although our knowledge and awareness of vitamins as important nutrients came about relatively recently, most of the ancient healing traditions dating back 5,000 years demonstrated some recognition that certain herbs and vegetables contained an invisible substance with an energy or life force that could reverse serious health conditions.
In both ancient
Our understanding of this principle took a quantum leap forward in 1747, when a Scottish naval surgeon, James Lind, discovered that an unknown substance in lemons, limes, and several other fruits and vegetables prevented scurvy, which was a serious problem for sailors of that period. This nutrient would eventually be identified as vitamin C.
Between 1650 and1850, half of all seamen on transoceanic voyages died of scurvy. Back then it was a common and deadly disease, and more British sailors were actually lost to scurvy than to the wars they fought. In 1753, James Lind published his Treatise on Scurvy, but because he was ignored for another 40 years, more than 100,000 British sailors died from the disease. Later, his work was recognized and appreciated by the Royal Navy, which eventually required that all ships carry citrus and other foods that contain high levels of vitamin C.
Scurvy is a serious hemorrhagic disease that causes lack of energy, immune deficiency, and spontaneous bleeding, often leading to death. Although those who used citrus fruits or chickpea sprouts to prevent scurvy had no concept of “vitamins” as we do today, they did know that there was something in the citrus fruit or vegetables that prevented scurvy. Since limes traveled well, they were the common choice of sea captains, who distributed them to the sailors and crew. The use of limes by the British Navy and other British commercial shipping companies created the slang term “limeys,” referring to British sailors and citizens of the
In the 1860s Louis Pasteur demonstrated that many diseases were linked to microscopic organisms. Soon after, the concept of infection caused by “germs” became the basis of the Western theory of medicine and disease. Around this time, beriberi and pellagra were believed to be infectious diseases. Beriberi can cause mental dysfunctions, weakness and numbness in the extremities, weakening of the cardiac muscles, and heart failure. Pellagra caused indigestion, skin rashes, loss of memory, hallucinations, and eventually death if not treated with B vitamins. It was later discovered by Dr. William Fletcher and others that consuming whole grains, which are rich in B vitamins, prevented this disorder.
The discoveries of the effects vitamins have upon human health developed further around 1905 when an English doctor, William Fletcher, experimented on asylum inmates in
In 1912, while working at the famed Lister Institute in
The year 1913, however, marked a significant and simultaneously positive and negative turning point in the history of nutritional sciences, when an influential group of scientists turned their attention to finding and isolating the vitamin factors in food.
Thomas Osborne and Lafayette Mendel conducted experiments at
In 1928, recognizing nutrition as a newly emerging specialty within the biological sciences, a group of visionary American biochemists and physiologists formed the world’s first scientific society focused on nutrition. All of its founding members were actively engaged in teaching and writing textbooks and academic articles defining the new discipline, and their new “Nutrition Society” brought much attention to the use of vitamins.
Named the American Institute of Nutrition, the society’s original purpose was to publish a journal containing research reports in the newly emerging field of nutrition. Its charter members comprised the editorial board for the Institute’s magazine, Journal of the American Institute of Nutrition. The society was opened to other researchers in 1933, and held its first scientific meeting at the
In the 1930s, a flurry of scientific discovery demonstrated the biochemical functions of various vitamins and established the body’s requirements for them. Since then, forms of vitamins have been widely available in thousands of processed foods produced on a massive commercial scale. These synthetic vitamins are fortified into many of our breads, cereals, pastas, and other grain products, as well as many dairy products, drinks, and desserts. In fact, it is nearly impossible to find any fortified food product that does not contain some form of synthetic vitamins.
Although this early scientific community made many valuable contributions in understanding the role of individual vitamins in health, the process of identifying and isolating vitamins led to an incorrect assumption (now shared for nearly a century by a majority of nutritional scientists) that vitamins are as effective and health-promoting in their isolated state as in their natural whole-food state.
These scientists meant well, but they did not realize that their focus and work would help create a flawed foundation upon which the field of nutritional science is built. They simply lacked the understanding that a vitamin’s efficacy depended on its cofactors, which are only present when the vitamin is in its naturally occurring state in whole foods, or in the supplements made from them.
Unfortunately, this generally accepted but incorrect “truth” or paradigm remains the guiding philosophy behind modern health, nutrition, and food-science protocols that focus solely on isolating and repairing parts of the whole, without regard to the whole itself.
In spite of the abundance of nutritional knowledge, scientists still lack an ability to observe and understand how nutrients work. Quantum science has provided data demonstrating that multitudes of cofactors exist within and around these vital nutritional structures (vitamins) that are essential to its correct functioning. These microscopic and often invisible factors may be as nutritionally important as the vitamin itself. Even at the most basic level, vitamins and minerals will never perform fully without their cofactors. This is why isolated, man-made chemical supplements do not provide the nutrition the body requires. Sadly, they can also weaken the immune system, potentially fostering an environment for disease, which is why we refer to them as toxic.
Fortunately today more people are embracing a natural lifestyle that includes organic whole foods and naturally occurring whole-food supplements as the best path to health and happiness.
Brian Clement, PhD, NMD,