100 Years of Vitamins

This year marks an important anniversary for the world of food and nutrition. A century ago, a Polish-American scientist named Casimir Funk coined the term “vitamin” in his landmark paper “The Etiology of the Deficiency of Disease,” which sought to ascribe nutritional deficiencies as the cause of diseases we rarely hear of today. We are indebted to him for more than his choice of terminology. His research greatly contributed to our knowledge of how foods – and their nutrients – can reduce risk of serious health conditions. To date there are 13 known vitamins – A, B1, B2, B6, B12, C, D, E, K, niacin, folic acid, biotin and pantothenic acid – each having multiple functions throughout the body.

This year, we tip our hats to Funk for being a pioneer to scientists and researchers who have continued to explore the role of vitamins in human health.  Within 100 years, key breakthroughs and advances in technology and our knowledge of food science have led to the near eradication of many deficiency disorders through fortification of the food supply:

  • 1933 – Milk was fortified with vitamin D to reduce risk of rickets.
  • 1938 – Bread was fortified with niacin to reduce risk of pellagra.
  • 1940 – Flour was fortified with thiamin, riboflavin and niacin.
  • 1998 – Cereal grains were fortified with folic acid to reduce risk of neural tube defects.

Exciting new breakthroughs continue today as researchers investigate additional benefits of vitamins, such as the role of vitamin D in bone health and in providing protective effect in falls among community dwelling adults greater than 65 years old!

One would think with all of the advances that have been made in understanding these nutrients as well as the plethora of knowledge available that humans would be fully equipped and able to obtain proper nutrition. Normally, when we think of vitamin deficiencies, the most obvious victims are those who are malnourished and/or live in developing nations.  However, even in the industrialized world, where nutritious foods are readily available, shifting diet and lifestyle patterns have led to nutritional gaps in large portions of the population.  In recent years nearly 15 percent of American households have been unable to acquire adequate food to meet their needs, and many Americans consume less than the optimal amounts of certain nutrients, even though they have adequate resources to achieve a healthful diet. The reality is that we are facing a serious public health threat due to the inability of certain populations to reach target intakes of many essential vitamins. New data from the 2003-2006 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) show that a significant percent of Americans do not obtain the Estimated Average Requirement (EAR) of vitamins A, B6, C, D, E, K through dietary and supplemental sources combined.

Public health experts in many countries have set guidelines and recommendations for daily intakes of the 13 essential vitamins. These recommendations aim not only to prevent deficiencies, but also to achieve optimal health for the majority of the population.  In the United States the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (accessible here) serves as the guide to promote optimal health for our Nation’s current and future generations by recommending healthful eating and physical activity choices.

However, recommendations do not necessarily lead to implementation.  Motivating the population to change dietary patterns is not an easy task, but the %DV listed on the Nutrition and Supplement Facts Panels on packaged food serves as a great resource to estimate daily intake of vitamins and other nutrients (remember children require less than adults).  Many fortified and/or processed foods such as cereals and protein bars offer a good to excellent source of many vitamins consumers need to maintain optimal nutritional status.

Dietary supplements such as a multivitamin also serve as a safe and effective way to fill nutrition gaps when dietary intake is insufficient or un-achievable.

Over the past few years the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN) has commissioned an annual consumer survey that consistently shows an upward trend in dietary supplement consumption among Americans. The 2011 survey found 69 percent of U.S. adults take dietary supplements, up from 66 percent in 2010, 65 percent in 2009, and 64 percent in 2008.  These survey data also suggest that more consumers are taking single vitamin supplements (22 percent take vitamin D; 22 percent take vitamin C; 17 percent take vitamin B/B complex).  Multivitamins remain the most popular dietary supplement on the market as they are taken by a little more than one-third of the U.S. population and approximately 71 percent of dietary supplement consumers.

Could this steady rise in vitamin supplement usage be indicative of a savvier, more health-conscience consumer and perhaps the hopeful start of a trend in overall improved nutrient intakes?  Together the food and dietary supplement industry must continue to educate consumers about the contribution of foods and beverages to a sensible, balanced diet and appropriate intakes of vitamins. It is important to note that more is not always better when it comes to vitamin intake — As with over consumption of calories, there can be repercussions accompanying excessive consumption of vitamins.  Supplementation does not replace a healthful diet and routine physical activity.  In 2012 celebrate 100 years of vitamins by making a conscious effort to achieve your target intakes by eating a sensible, balanced diet and supplementing when appropriate!