History of vitamins, nutrition, vitamins
Since then, the concept of nutrition has grown and evolved throughout the ages.
The First CluesAncient Greeks and Egyptians came to understand certain foods could ease the suffering of certain health issues. They knew this to be true, even if they didn’t understand the underlying implications.
For example, it would be centuries before scientists could make the connection between a vitamin A deficiency and crippling eyesight problems. At the time, ancient man simply thought their extra serving of liver could magically improve their night vision.
The Name GameIn the beginning, these frontrunners for nutrition education merely identified specific healing powers in foods. Later, as these discoveries were analyzed, nutritionists assigned letters to each individual vitamin.
Even today, we are left with evidence of the complexity of nutrition. Many vitamins were believed to be a single entity. When scientists were later able to look at the specific chemical makeup, they discovered some individual vitamins were actually groups of nutrients. For example, the B vitamins later needed subdivision to identify this complex nutrient.
From the BeginningThe discovery of vitamins is fascinating as it unfolds over several centuries.
1747 – James Lind, a surgeon aboard a naval ship, was concerned about the numerous cases of scurvy. While the illness was a common one at the time, Lind still considered it distressing.
After careful evaluation, Lind was able to determine foods like lemons and limes could help keep the illness at bay. This discovery would later shed light on vitamin C deficiencies.
1905 – Nutrition analysis took a back burner in the minds of scientists and doctors for more than 150 years. Again, it was a common health crisis (beriberi) that brought eating habits to the forefront.
White rice was all the rage at the time. Unfortunately, so was beriberi—a crippling disease that brought about heart failure, nerve damage and usually death.
William Fletcher, an English doctor, made a connection between the two popular trends. He noted that by stripping the husk off the rice, individuals were missing out on the essential nutrients (later to be dubbed vitamin B1). This nutritional deficiency was manifested in the form of beriberi.
1912 – Biochemist Casimir Funk was finally able to put a name to these essential healing powers found in food. He named the important substances vita-amine. Vita meant life and anime referred to nitrogen (a compound later associated with thiamine).
1922 – Researchers at the University of California identified vitamin E in green leafy vegetables. They also made the connection between vitamin E and the protection against free radicals.
1933 – In terms of nutritional findings, 1933 was an important year.
Some like-minded Americans decided it was time to formalize the research associated with nutrition. The attention given to this obscure branch of biological science wasn’t merely a fascination—it was a health essential.
The American Institute of Nutrition was established—the world’s first scientific society concentrating on nutrition. The primary focus of the organization was to produce a health journal with research findings associated with nutrition. The group also taught, wrote textbooks and published academic articles.
Then, researchers at Yale University closely examined butter. They found it contained an element that was essential for human growth. In reality, they had unearthed the fat-soluble vitamin A.
At the same time, specialists at a pharmaceutical company (now known as Roche) were looking at milk. They found that, like butter, it contained an element that was essential for proper growth. This time, nutritionists had discovered the B vitamins.
1935 – Nutritionists turned their attention to vitamin C once again. This time, scientists at the Swiss Institute of Technology managed to artificially synthesize the nutrient.
1930s-1940s – Vitamins became a consumer essential.
Processed foods contained synthetic vitamins. In fact, it was nearly impossible to find products that hadn’t been fortified with various nutrients.
Scientists moved past vitamin C. Now, synthesized vitamins included A, B1, B2, E and K1.
1954 – While serving as Professor Emeritus at the University of Nebraska Medical School, Dr. Denham Harman discovered that antioxidants like vitamin C and E could help fight free radicals.
Going ForwardBy the 1950s and 1960s, synthetic vitamin supplements had infiltrated the consumer market. These supplements made access to health essentials affordable and easily accessible.
Why was access to reliable nutritional products so important? With the rise of fast food restaurants and highly processed foods, the acquisition of essential vitamins and minerals wasn’t the primary focus for many individuals.
And in underdeveloped parts of the world, these synthetic vitamins were a life saver—literally. Those without access to healthy, nourishing foods relied on vitamin supplements to keep them alive.
Now, inexpensive vitamins could treat conditions that had plagued populations for centuries: rickets (vitamin D), scurvy (vitamin C), beriberi (vitamin B1), and pernicious anemia (vitamin B12) to name a few.
Additionally, scientists discovered vitamins play an important role in disease prevention. Vitamin B12 prevents birth defects and can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Another B vitamin (folic acid) also helps prevent birth defects and maintain the health of the brain.
Once the synthesizing process had been established, scientists began experimenting with different modes of supplementation. Now, individuals can supplement with oral pills, skin patches, and nasal sprays.
The discovery of essential vitamins and minerals serves as the foundation to quality, overall health. Without the efforts of our scientific forefathers, we’d all suffer from vitamin deficiencies and the devastating long-term effects of poor nutrition.
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