How long have vitamins been around? For millions of years, you rightly declare, because soon after we had life, we had biochemistry and therefore vitamins to help those biochemical pathways function. But how long have we known about vitamins? Not long at all. The very first vitamin was isolated in 1912. It wasn’t vitamin A as you would predict. It was what we now call vitamin B1 or thiamin.
The man responsible was a Polish scientist called Casimir Funk, working at the Lister Institute in England. He found that a diet lacking thiamin lead to the severe condition beri-beri, and providing an adequate amount of thiamin meant avoidance of the condition. Pretty exciting stuff in 1912.
Thiamin used to be spelled thiamine (with the e) to emphasise that it was a chemical with an “amine” group. Indeed, Funk originally thought that there were many “vital amines” in nature so coined the term “vitamines”. When it became clear that not all “vitamines” were amines, the “e” was dropped, leaving us with the word vitamin.
To be fair, Funk wasn’t convinced of his own argument. He wrote: I must admit that, when I chose the name, “vitamine”, I was well aware that these substances might later prove not to be of an amine nature.” Funk wrote a stunning 500 page book, published in 1922 with nearly 1600 references, discussing all the science behind this very new avenue in nutrition.
Even in 1922 we only knew of vitamin B (not yet realising it was a group of vitamins, not just one vitamin), vitamin C, vitamin A (not knowing that beta-carotene was a precursor) and an unnamed anti-rickets vitamin (later proved to be vitamin D). Only the chemical structure of thiamin was known.
Disappearing Vitamin C
Not everyone understands why vitamins exist. After I had given a presentation in England, a lady confronted me with the view that “oranges today do not have vitamin C” and therefore we needed her vitamin C supplements. Supplement representatives often parrot the company line and, having no scientific background, do not even think to ask for some proof. As Funk wrote “We already know that vitamine (sic) C is generated on the germination of seeds”, that is, oranges have vitamin C for the health and growth of the oranges. No vitamin C = no orange. They do not produce vitamins for humans, they produce vitamins for themselves. That goes for all plant foods – all those nutrients are for the plants health; you just happen to benefit too when you dine on them.
Fresh is best?
Just a reminder for those that are concerned about the nutrient content of their fresh produce. Foods like fruits and vegetables will have a reasonable amount of vitamins if they look and feel fresh. Prepare and eat them soon after buying, which means it is smart to shop three times a week for fresh produce. Frozen fruit and vegetables also have a high vitamin content.
In Australia only 7% of the adult population eat enough fruit and vegetables for good nutrition. Now, as that is self-reported information, and humans are great fibbers, the number is closer to 12. Not 12%, just 12 people total. So, we would be better off eating more fruit and veg before worrying about issues like conventional vs organically grown.
What does it all mean?
Nutrition is a relatively young science, compared to mathematics, physics and astronomy. There is a lot to learn, but we humans tend to let ourselves speculate way ahead of knowledge. Will a vitamin supplement improve your health? Very likely, if your home is a park bench or under a bridge. Otherwise, I doubt it.
It is more useful to concentrate on things that have a much higher likelihood of extending your life – work hard, be fit and active, eat wholesome food, be social, volunteer, challenge your mind, be resilient when life ain’t pretty and be comfortable in your own skin. (Read The Longevity Project if you want evidence that there is more to a long life than eating vegetables).
Yes, additional vitamins can be very helpful in certain situations and conditions eg the full range of vitamins in cystic fibrosis, folate pre-pregnancy and the first trimester, vitamin D in the winter if you live far from the equator. Folate and vitamin D were hardly mentioned 30 years ago and now we appreciate the potential benefits of supplements to some people. So, (I note to myself), expect to be further surprised by vitamins over the coming decades, but don’t expect them to be a single, or simple, solution to a long and healthy life.