Sunday, 4 December 2011

Know your Vitamins

The picture above shows the contents of our 'vitamin box,' not that we take all of these all the time. Rather it's an accumulation of dietary supplements recommended over the years for various ailments or more particularly their prevention. These are the products of a multi-billion dollar industry, selling us products that the fit and healthy who follow a balanced diet don't really need. The understanding of the link between paticular vitamins or rather the lack of them and specific ailments was worked out mainly in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by pioneers in the world of biochemistry.
    The critical breakthrough was announced in 1912 by the English biochemist Sir Fredrick Gowland Hopkins who laid the foundations by creating a model artificial diet of highly purified carbohydrates, proteins and fats plus essential minerals. When fed alone, rats failed to thrive but the addition of small amounts of milk or yeast extract to the model diet restored vitality, indicating the presence of powerful life enhancing substances. His work persuaded a new generation of scientists to begin the search to understand the chemical structures of these substances, then dubbed 'vitamines' subsequently shortened to the modern 'vitamins'.        
    That the absence of certain nutrients causes disease was of course not new. The Scottish surgeon James Lind showed in 1753 that fresh lime or lemon juice protected sailors from scurvy. In the nineteenth century it was shown that the incidence of beriberi was reduced among sailors who ate unpolished rice rather than the pure polished material.
   Work on rice polishings continued before and between the wars to uncover the B group of vitamins. Thiamine (vitamin B1) was identified as the agent whose absence from polished rice caused beriberi in humans. Hopkins himself showed that margarine lacked  vital nutrients present in butter. These were subsequently identified as vitamins D and A. Vitamin D, plentiful in cod liver oil, protected growing children from rickets. The structure of the active principle of lime and lemon juice, vitamin C or ascorbic acid was also established in the nineteen thirties. These discoveries had a profound influence on public health policies and led to the state provision of milk in schools as well as cod liver oil and orange juice and influenced nutrition policy worldwide.
     As the father of the science, Hopkins was awarded the Nobel prize for physiology or medicine in 1929 jointly with Christiaan Eijkman. Think of them the next time you pop a vitamin pill.

The Stuart Agenda by Alan Calder at, and Barnes and Noble

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