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Intro to vitamin series

By Shaun Holt

Millions of people take multivitamins, around 1/3 of people in Western countries, and billions of dollars worth are bought each year.

Vitamins are usually combined with dietary minerals and so a more accurate name would be a “multivitamin/mineral supplement”.

They provide “nutritional insurance” by topping up almost anything important that we may be missing in our diet, and if some of the components are not needed, we can easily excrete them.

Despite having a good diet, many New Zealanders are low in a number of important nutrients such as vitamin D, particularly in the winter, and selenium, due to the low levels in our soil and therefore our food. We could take many separate supplements but it is much simpler (and cheaper) to take a multivitamin each day.

There are often 30-40 vitamins and minerals in a good multivitamin/mineral supplement and my next articles will cover all the main components.

Many wonder how the vitamins got their names and why there are missing letters and numbers... we have vitamins B6 and B12, but what happened to B7 to B11? We have vitamins E and K, but where are vitamins F to J?

Vitamins were discovered only around 100 years ago, when scientists including Cornelius Pekelharing and Frederick Hopkins described the important influence of certain dietary constituents on the processes of growth, nutrition and maintenance of health. Around this time a scientist called Casimir Funk was studying beri-beri (which we now know is a disease caused by vitamin B1 deficiency) and he coined the name ‘vitamines’ for these important dietary constituents essential for life (vital) and were organic bases (amines).

But as not all of these constituents were amines, Jack Drummond suggested the name be changed to ‘vitamin’ and the substances be given an alphabetical name (vitamins A, B, C etc.)

The five first vitamins were discovered between 1910 and 1920 and were logically named A, B, C, D and E. Then a vitamin was discovered in 1920 which had similar properties to vitamin B (thiamine) and so both were renamed, to B1 (thiamine) and B2 (riboflavin). More B vitamins were added as they were discovered and 12 were discovered in total. Then it was realised that some of them were not vitamins at all and so they were removed. This is why we see the gaps in the numbering of the B vitamins (there are eight - B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B7, B9 and B12.)

Similarly, other “vitamins” were allocated a letter and then declassified once they were found not to be vitamins. This is why there are gaps from vitamin E to K. Vitamin F is today known as the essential fatty acids (omega 3 and 6), vitamin G was reclassified as vitamin B2 (riboflavin), and vitamin H is now vitamin B7 (biotin). All the vitamins were discovered during the 28 year period from 1913 to 1941, the last one being vitamin B9 (folic acid), but it is certainly possible that more will be discovered in the future.