A Short History of Vitamins

      The history of vitamins is a fascinating story of scientific exploration and discovery, Nutritional breakthroughs, and the profound impact that has had on our health. Throughout most of human history many people have had access to a very nutrient dense selection of foods within their regular diets, consisting of both animal products and plants. There are two ways to ensure you maintain adequate levels of the various vitamins and minerals crucial for good health, you can produce them yourself, or you can consume them. It is thought that our microbial ancestors some 60 million years ago were capable of producing their own vitamin C for example. This is clearly no longer the case however, more recently our hunter gatherer ancestors would get an abundant supply of vitamins and minerals from the animals they hunted and plants they gathered. But with the rise of agriculture and shift towards more vitamin poor starches such as wheat and corn, many people began seeing symptoms of a decreased and less varied vitamin intake. 

     Since the move towards these vitamin poor starches, our diets and food processing methods developed further to the point where many of the other foods which may have supplemented some of the vitamins and nutrients missing in your grain were also eliminated from one’s diet. For example, in the mid 1800s many manufacturers had started processing rice in steam powered mills creating white rice by stripping the vitamin rich outer layer off. The increase in popularity of white rice just so happened to coincide with the rise of a disease coined “Beri Beri” which symptoms include losing feeling in the legs and struggling to walk. For many years scientists and doctors were perplexed and unable to determine what caused this disease and how to help treat it, until in the 1880s when a scientist named Christian Eijkman found that chickens were also susceptible to “Beri Beri” disease and began studying them. He discovered that the chickens had been fed by a military cook from a nearby military hospital, however when this cook was moved to another posting his successor refused to allow the chickens to eat rice meant for soldiers. Instead, he began feeding the chickens with unprocessed rice and they very quickly recovered. This led Dr Eijkman to the realization that there must be something important within the outer layer of rice.     In 1912 a polish biochemist Casimir Flunk called the mysterious substance found in the outer layer of rice “Vital Amine” which eventually would be shortened to vitamin hence the reason we have that name. It would take a number of years before scientists were able to definitively identify the mysterious substance as Vitamin B1 also known as Thiamine. Over the more than 100 years since Dr Flunk coined the term “Vital Amine”, vitamins have become a big multi-billion dollar industry, in the USA alone across 2013 over 12.5 billion dollars was spent by consumers on purchasing various vitamin supplements. This growth of understanding and technology together has allowed us to reestablish a vitamin balance as our ancestors had, however billions of people in the world still depend on vitamin scarce staples such as rice and cassava. For example, vitamin A deficiency which damages the light sensing molecules in your eyes is estimated to leave around 500,000 children blind everywhere, this demonstrates a need for further education and access to all the essential vitamins regardless of where you are and what foods you have access to.