Your Health

A short history of the vitamin

The fact that certain foods can help alleviate specific health issues has been known - if not completely understood - for thousands of years.

For example, reports suggest that the ancient Greeks and Egyptians knew that liver could be useful in combating poor night vision - a condition that can be attributed to deficiency of vitamin A, which is found in liver.

More recently, British sailors learned the hard way in the 1800s that lemons and limes could help prevent scurvy. What they didn't know, of course, was that these fruits contain vitamin C, which is the ingredient that keeps scurvy at bay.

Indeed, the knowledge that certain foods have specific ingredients that can help ward off disease played a role in the exploration of Canada, according to Peter Jones, Director of the Richardson Centre for Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals at the University of Manitoba.

"When Cabot came down the St. Lawrence Seaway, three-quarters of his crew were dysfunctional because they hadn't had enough limes and lemons and their vitamin C levels had run out. The natives actually knew what was happening and they suggested he peel off birch bark and make birch bark tea. And there was enough vitamin C in the tea to actually allow his crew to recover. His whole expedition would have failed if it wasn't for this advice."

While many knew that certain foods could achieve certain benefits, it wasn't until the early 1900s that scientists started to understand what it was in the food that could help prevent certain diseases. That point was underscored by the work of English scientists William Fletcher and Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins. But it wasn't until 1912 that Casimir Funk, a Polish-born biochemist, first identified a substance in food that he called a vita-amine (vita meaning life and amine meaning nitrogen in Latin). The word was shortened a few years later to vitamin.

Not long after that, commercial enterprises were formed to capitalize on these scientific discoveries. By the 1930s, companies were formed to manufacture and distribute vitamins, but it wasn't until the late 1950s and early 1960s that the dietary supplement industry really started to take off.

About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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