Facts That Figure: Vitamins

Facts That Figure: Vitamins

By: C.G. Hoffman

The vitamin industry has grown into a huge, money gobbling juggernaut, with Americans shelling out big bucks on vitamins and supplements, to the tune of $39 billion dollars a year. And the numbers keep growing, despite the medical establishment being highly doubtful about most vitamin’s claims to heal everything from the common cold to cancer

In the 19th century, bacterial infections were having a heyday. Infectious diseases had been discovered to be the mother of all ills, and all diseases were attributed to bacteria. However, there are plenty of diseases that come about because of vitamin deficiencies, and these kept on proliferating, especially among the poor, who had meager diets.

• Scurvy was the scourge of sailors sailing the high seas and claimed 2 million victims on sailing ships around the world between 1500 and 1800. Sailors on long voyages ate mainly hardtack and salt meat, with a healthy side of alcohol. Without access to fresh fruits and vegetables for an extended time, many sailors developed scurvy, a disease that causes painful sores in the mouth and all over the body. Scientists didn’t know that the disease was caused by a severe deficiency in vitamin C, but somehow discovered that oranges and lemons warded it off. The famous Captain James Cook made sure to make a big deal of serving vitamin C-rich sauerkraut only to his officers, making the previously reluctant sailors demand their share of the delicacy. His crews remained scurvy-free, an anomaly in those times.

Hunter-gatherer societies probably eat diets rich in vitamins, as they eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. With the rise of agriculture and the mechanization of food production, people started eating more vitamin-poor starches such as wheat and corn. In the mid-1800’s, steam powered mills started stripping rice of its nutrient rich hull, producing a polished refined white rice. The rice looked nice, but the lack of vitamins gave rise to alarming levels of beriberi, which causes people to lose feeling in their legs and have trouble walking.

In 1912, Polish biochemist Casimir Funk gave a name to the mysterious new components he had discovered: Vital Amines, shortened to vitamins. The different vitamins were discovered and isolated in the next few years, leading to an explosion of vitamin supplements offered to consumers, promising everything from a head full of healthy hair to cures for every health complaint.

During WWII carrots became famous for their role in promoting healthy eyesight due to their high Vitamin A content. This was in fact due to an especially devious bit of propaganda on the part of the British. British thinking heads had discovered radar, and were successfully using it to sink large numbers of German ships and submarines. Not wanting the Germans to know of their discovery, they attributed the high number of kills to the excellent eyesight of their pilots, who they said were chomping down on large amounts of carrots! Soon, victory gardens across England were all planting carrots, so that their children could have eyesight as good as those of the British pilots!

Instead of keeping modern foods in their original, healthier state, the US started adding vitamins back INTO foods. First, grains are stripped of their natural nutritional value, and then factories add synthetic vitamins back into the depleted foods! In the 1920’s iodine was added to salt to prevent goiters, Vitamin D started being added to milk in the 1930’s, flour and bread started being enriched with B vitamins in the 1940’s, and in the 1990’s folic acid started being added to grains. Scientists say that diseases such as rickets, beriberi and pellagra, once common, are now almost nonexistent in developed countries where food fortification is mandated by the government.

Linus Pauling got a Nobel Prize in the 1970’s for his claim that mega doses of Vitamin C could cure the common cold and was a magical elixir of health, but his theories have been largely debunked. A Cochran review of nearly 30 studies looking at people with colds taking the normal daily dose of vitamin C found that it reduced colds’ length by 8 percent. This means if your cold lasts five days, it might be shortened by about 10 hours.

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