Vitamins are organic molecules that are essential for the proper function of our metabolism. In general, they facilitate or control vital chemical reactions in our cells but are only needed in very small quantities. However, these essential micronutrients cannot be made in sufficient quantities, or at all, by our own bodies and are mostly obtained through our diets.
A popular method of sourcing these vitamins is through synthetic supply, by taking dietary supplements containing them. It’s so popular in fact, that the global dietary supplements market in 2019 was worth approximately $221 billion, and it’s expected to grow to about $404 billion by 2026.
But do these pills really deliver what they say on the bottle? How safe are these products? And how are they regulated? These questions and more are investigated in Vitamania: The Sense and Nonsense of Vitamins, winner of Best Documentary in 2019’s SCINEMA International Science Film Festival.
You can watch the film on SBS on Demand in Australia.
Who coined the term vitamin? It turns out we have Polish biochemist Casimir Funk to thank for that.
Over the past century, a vast amount of research has looked at nutritional supplements, without reaching a consensus as to their efficacy.
In 2012, Simon Spedding, from the University of South Australia in Adelaide, published a paper in the Australasian Medical Journal celebrating the centenary of the discovery of the “vitamine”.
The subject was Polish biochemist Casimir Funk, who was “the first to suggest the existence of a family of organic substances that are essential for life, which the world now takes for granted”.
“He was thus the godfather of the vitamin movement. Funk conceived the concept of ‘vital amines’; essential nutrients with a specific action, requiring only minute amount with the power to cure a specific disease,” Spedding says.
“A century later, although we may find limitations in Casimir’s theory, this does not detract from his genius, or his influence on medical thinking and his role in founding the vitamin industry.”
Kazimierz Funk (commonly anglicised as Casimir) was born on 23 February 1884 in Warsaw, which was then part of Russia.
He studied biology at the University of Geneva in Switzerland, earning a PhD in 1904, and chemistry at the University of Bern, in Germany.
He then went to the Pasteur Institute in Paris, where, Spedding says, he entered the new field of biochemistry, before returning to Germany and the University of Berlin. In 1907 he went to work as a biochemist at the Municipal Hospital in Wiesbaden.
Funk left Germany again in 1910, moving to London as a researcher at the Lister Institute of Preventative Medicine, where he was directed to study the disease beriberi.
MedicalNewsToday describes beriberi as “a serious and potentially life-threatening condition”, which in its wet form “mainly affects the cardiovascular system, causing poor circulation and fluid buildup in the tissues”; and in its dry form “primarily affects the nervous system, leading to the degeneration of the nerves”.
Borrowing from previous research – in particular that of Dutch scientist Christiaan Eijkman, who shared the 1929 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with British biochemist Frederick Hopkins – Funk began studying relationships between dietary intakes and good health.
Eijkman and others had observed that birds which had sickened on a diet of polished rice would recover when fed rice hulls.
In 1911, Funk isolated the substance from rice hulls that was providing nutritional benefit. He called it “amine” and later proposed that there are substances that are essential to life, which he called “vitae animae”, later shortened to “vitamine”.
He explained his findings in a 1911 paper titled “On the chemical nature of the substance which cures polyneuritis in birds induced by a diet of polished rice”.
“It has been shown that the cortical layers of rice contain a substance which cures beri-beri in man and the polyneuritis which is produced in birds by feeding them on polished rice,” he wrote. “The present inquiry is directed to determine the chemical nature of the curative substance.”
Funk continued his research and in 1912 published his definitive paper, “The etiology of the deficiency diseases. Beriberi, polyneuritis in birds, epidemic dropsy, scurvy, experimental scurvy in animals, infantile scurvy, ship beriberi, pellagra”.
“It is now known that all these diseases, with the exception of pellagra, can be prevented and cured by the addition of certain preventive substances; the deficient substances, which are of the nature of organic bases, we will call ‘vitamines’; and we will speak of a beriberi or scurvy vitamine, which means, a substance preventing the special disease,” he wrote.
Simon Spedding says Funk’s “concept of a group of life-giving amines was revolutionary in 1912. The Funk model of vitamins was of simple amines as essential nutrients, each having a single mode of action in the cure of a specific disease.”
Funk became a US citizen in 1920, went home to Warsaw to work, and returned to the US as World War II inflamed Europe. He died in New York on 19 November 1967.
Jeff Glorfeld is a former senior editor of The Age newspaper in Australia, and is now a freelance journalist based in California, US.
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