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The 100-Year History of Vitamins

Ever wonder what's behind that bottle of multivitamins sitting in your cabinet? Not the science or manufacturing, but the history? Here's the story.

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Many people are surprised to discover that vitamin history, the development of the most basic supplement that most of us take for granted, goes back more than a century. Most of us think of nutrient depletion of our food is a recent problem, but that just isn’t the case. In fact, efforts to solve that very problem in the early 1900s led to the development of today’s multivitamin. But before the supplement could be invented, scientists had to discover the existence of substances we now call vitamins.

Did you know?
According to The Journal of Family Practice, more than 90 percent of Americans fall short on at least one essential vitamin or mineral.­

When the 20th century began, only three essential nutrients were recognized in food: protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Poor sanitation and hygiene were viewed as the root of all disease, and the solution was sterilizing food to get rid of bacteria, mold, and toxins. Rice was polished, and other grains were milled to eliminate husks. But despite prolonging shelf life, there were some harmful consequences, unknown at the time

The processing of grains destroyed vital B vitamins and led to higher incidence of two of the era’s common diseases: pellagra, a deficiency of niacin, whose symptoms include sores and delusions; and beriberi, a deficiency of vitamin B1, or thiamine, which damages nerves and can lead to paralysis.

Sterilizing milk with heat destroyed vitamin C, and rates of scurvy―(bleeding gums and fatigue are common symptoms)―increased among children in affluent families. These were the people who had access to the “best” food, or so they thought, so these trends were a mystery.

Aha! Vitamin Discovery

Modern vitamin history began when scientists who were trying to solve these problems began to discover that food contained more than three nutrients. One called these other essential compounds “accessory substances.” Another, Casimir Funk, coined the term “vitamine” in a 1912 scientific paper, and the word later became “vitamin.” Funk, who is credited with discovering vitamins, proposed the idea that various diseases could be cured with nutrients, and during the next few decades, he and other scientists identified various vitamins we know today. But that process took a while.

Early Vitamin Products

The initial vitamin discovery spawned various products, such as Yeast Vitamine, Double Strength Yeast and Iron Concentrate, and Super Vitamins. They typically contained “vitamin B” (individual B vitamins had not yet been identified) from yeast and various other ingredients.

This history of the modern vitamin supplement began in 1916 with the development of Mastin’s Yeast Vitamon Tablets. With vitamins A, B, and C, iron, calcium, and Nux vomica, a homeopathic remedy for heartburn, its label claimed: “This preparation contains vitamines together with other ingredients which should prove of value in helping to improve the appetite, aid digestion, correct constipation, clear the skin, increase energy, and, as a tonic, to assist in putting on weight in weakened, run down conditions due to malnutrition.”

The medical profession wasn’t happy about consumers buying supplements. “The claims set forth on the labels of the medicinal values of these preparations are extravagant and misleading,” said an article in a 1922 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Medical Recognition of Multivitamins

Despite the criticism, in that same year, another medical journal enthusiastically promoted a multivitamin made by a leading pharmaceutical company: Metagen from Parke, Davis & Co., (now part of Pfizer). Sold to doctors to prescribe to patients, Metagen contained vitamins A, B, and C and, according to a glowing review in American Family Physician, could improve health for virtually anyone, including infants and people with major diseases of the era.

The article concluded: “In view of the radical change that has come over the accepted methods of preparing and supplying the food of the nation, it seems that the discovery of the vitamines and the elaboration of Metagen, the most available preparation of vitamines for the use of the physician, are not only timely but of the greatest importance in their bearing upon the health and well-being of the population.”

Around the same time, the American Medical Association endorsed Oscodal, a supplement created by Casimir Funk. The man who discovered vitamins had also invented a process to get vitamins A and D from cod-liver oil into a sugar-coated pill as an alternative to the unpleasant taste of cod-liver oil.

Did you know?
In 1922, multivitamin-type products were advertised for relief from pimples, blackheads, boils, constipation, malnutrition, nervous deficiency, physical breakdown, brain fog, general debility, run-down conditions, to “loosen up the slime and accumulated bile and clean the system,” to improve energy and digestion, and help weak, malnourished people gain weight.

Vitamin history really took off during the rest of the 1920s and into the ’30s, as more nutrients were documented and more multivitamin-type products became available. “Vim,” “vigor,” and “pep” were promoted benefits. Vitamin ingredients were being extracted from food, but in the late 1930s, methods were developed to synthesize them in a lab, cutting costs and setting the stage for wider use.

Although many modern multis, such as those typically designed for sale in drug stores, contain synthetic ingredients and artificial additives, many companies still extract vitamins for their products directly from food. For example, MegaFood began making vitamins from real food in 1973, and others began using plant-based ingredients even earlier.

A Nutritional Milestone with Recommended Dietary Allowances

As American men were called for military service during WWII, one-third were found to suffer from disabilities known to stem from poor nutrition. In response, President Franklin D. Roosevelt convened the National Nutrition Conference for Defense in 1941. The result was the first set of government-sponsored Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) for six vitamins and two minerals. Although more nutrients have been discovered and added to the list since then, the first RDAs began to define the multivitamin as we know it today. The first One-A-Day appeared in 1943. “That’s where we really started to see the multivitamin as a kitchen-table product,” says Daniel Fabricant, PhD, CEO and President of the Natural Products Association. By the late 1950s, many multis were sold in apothecary-style bottles and promoted to be kept on the table, next to the salt and pepper shakers.

The list of vitamins and minerals for which the U.S. government has set requirements has grown over the years.

  • 1941: Vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, C, and D, calcium, and iron.
  • 1968: Vitamins E, B6, and B12, and magnesium join the list, and more are added in later years.
  • Today: Vitamins A, B1 (thiamin), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B5 (pantothenic acid), B6 (pyridoxine,) B7 (biotin), B9 (folic acid), B12 (cobalamin), C, D, E, K, choline, calcium, chromium, copper, iodine, iron, magnesium, manganese, molybdenum, phosphorus, selenium, zinc, potassium, and chloride.

Modern Vitamin History

The benefits of megavitamin therapy began to be documented by Linus Pauling and other scientists in the 1960s, and by the 1970s, there were many high-dose multivitamins available on the market. The FDA responded by trying to regulate vitamins as prescription drugs. Lobbying and legal actions in the decades following resulted in the passage of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act in 1994, which set guidelines for the governmental regulation of supplements.

Over time, more nutrients and superfoods have been discovered and incorporated into multivitamins, and detailed regulations ensure quality control. Today, we have many choices: multivitamins made with ingredients that are raw, food-based, strictly plant-based, non-GMO, gluten-free, soy-free, or free of other food allergens. Many products are designed for different stages of life, from childhood through child-bearing, for older age groups, and for specific concerns such as heart health. Multivitamin “pills” now come in liquids, powders, chewables, and gummies.

But despite more than a century of research and innovation, nutritional shortfalls continue. And although nutritional deficiencies today may not be severe enough to cause beriberi or pellagra, they still impact our health. “The bottom line is that most people are just not getting the nutrients they need,” says Tieraona Low Dog, MD, author of Fortify Your Life, “even if they believe they eat a healthy diet.” Making the need for vitamin supplementation as great now as it was when these key elements of nutrition were fist discovered.

Vitamin History in Pictures

A 1977 ad for a plant-based multi with herbs.

A 1977 ad for a plant-based multi with herbs.

A 1977 ad for a vegetarian multivitamin without additives or animal products, such as fish liver oil, oyster shells, bone meal, or desiccated liver.

A 1984 ad for a broad-spectrum, high-dose multivitamin with enzymes, amino acids, and superfoods such as bee pollen, wheat grass, barley grass, and spirulina.

A 1984 ad for a broad-spectrum, high-dose multivitamin with enzymes, amino acids, and superfoods such as bee pollen, wheat grass, barley grass, and spirulina.