The discovery of vitamins was a major breakthrough in our understanding of health and disease. In 1912, Casimir Funk first coined the term vitamin. The main period of discovery began in the early 19th century and ended in the middle of the 20th century. The enrichment of flour began in the late 1930s, when B vitamins (thiamine and niacin) were available in bulk through industrial synthesis.James Lind, a Scottish doctor, is credited with discovering that scurvy can be prevented by consuming citrus fruits, although at the time it was not known that vitamin C deficiency was the main cause.
Scientists used the results of a few human trials and tests conducted on rats to determine the amount of food, such as milk, eggs and green leafy vegetables, needed to meet people's vitamin needs. Deformed, underweight and sickly animals were compared to healthy and well-nourished ones.In 1913, McCollum identified the first vitamin, a substance found in butter and egg yolk, which he called “fat-soluble factor A.” One product, Mastin's Vitamin Tablets, contained all three known vitamins along with iron, calcium and phosphorus, making it perhaps the first multi-vitamin and mineral tablet on the market. In East Asia, where polished white rice was the common staple food of the middle class, beriberi resulting from a lack of vitamin B1 was endemic.By the late 1950s, when several vitamin producers were marketing their pills in imitation apothecary style bottles, vitamins were figuratively “seasoned for dinner”. Manufacturers could claim to meet all the government's minimum vitamin requirements and were often based on the conclusions of “government and medical experts”, who revealed that three out of four people were suffering from “vitamin famine”.The daily vitamin pill continues to have a strong influence on us, even though numerous studies cast doubt on whether taking these supplements is beneficial.
At the National Congress on Medical Quackery in 1961 to draw attention to the continuing problem of health fraud, the Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration told his audience that the most widespread and expensive form of charlatanism was the promotion of vitamins and dietary supplements.Folate, another vitamin that is part of the B complex group, is important for ensuring normal growth and development and for maintaining optimal health. On the eve of World War II, pharmaceutical companies had learned to synthesize vitamins on an industrial scale; production was measured by tons and countries were prepared to meet the nutritional needs of the entire world.As for Hopkins, he was knighted in 1925 and in 1929 he shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Eijkman “for his discovery of vitamins that stimulate growth”. By then, the final “e” in vitamin E had been eliminated and the alphabet naming convention had been firmly established.Nowadays we have a better understanding of how nutrition affects our health. We know that vitamins are essential for our wellbeing and that they can be found in many foods.
We also know that taking daily vitamin supplements may not be beneficial for everyone. However, it is important to remember that vitamins have come a long way since James Lind's discovery.