May 03, 2018

The History Of The Vitamin

Today, more than half of Americans take a daily multi-vitamin. What is this? Why does it exist? Do we even need it? Before we invented the future of vitamins, we took a step back to better understand the history of this simple daily habit and how it became so important in America.

What is a vitamin 💊

Vitamins are little, invisible organic compounds that are essential for nutrition and required by an organism to survive.

Today, we typically know vitamins in the form of shiny capsules, colorful pills, sugary chews, or artificial sprays. But before the 1900s, we didn’t know any of this. We only knew vitamins through food.

The birth of the vitamin  👶 

Dr. James Lind discovered citrus fruits prevented scurvy, which was the first clue into the world of “deficiencies” – that a disease isn’t just caused by a germ or an infection, but something that is
missing all together (in this case, vitamin C.)

Vitamins were the newest addition to the quantification of food. In 1912, Polish-born biochemist, Casmir Funk, coined the word “vital amine,” later becoming vitamin. This kicked off the period of discovery.


Synthetic vitamins came on scene.

During this time, one of the biggest names associated with vitamins was scientist Elmer McCollum. He was like the Dr. Oz of the 1920s and wrote a nutritional column called “Our Daily Diet” in McCall’s, a woman’s magazine. His column played to the fear of American housewives that if they didn’t feed their kids with the right food that had all the vitamins then disaster would strike and they would likely wind up with a disease, blind, or some other horrible thing.  The fear of famine and malnutrition during the war only spurred its growth; it was the dawn of the vitamin market.

Food processing giants came along and seized again on American public fear turning it into an epic marketing strategy that still informs our foods today. They take cheap raw material then put it through a series of harsh processes like centrifuging, chemical extracting, bleaching, and heating that take out all the vitamins and strip it of its nutritional density.
Then they bake or spray the essential vitamins back in. And now we have sugary cereals accepted as a “healthy heart breakfast.”

In the United States alone, the vitamin and supplement market is almost $14 billion with more than 90% of the market being made up of synthetic vitamins. But, do we need them? Can we still get them from our food?

Why vitamins exist?  💊 

Before the 1930’s, we got our vitamins from the ground, not the lab. 

The sad reality is that processed foods and the vitamin industry are dependent on the other’s existence. Vitamins enabled our processed foods while processed foods gave a reason for synthetic vitamins to even exist. Without synthetic vitamins, scientists calculated that more than 90% of us would be deficient in at least one nutrient if not way more. We need vitamins.

What vitamins do we need?  🙋

The birth of the vitamin shifted the American mindset to a reductive way of thinking about food – as a sum of its parts. Drink calcium and eat vitamin C, rather than drink a glass of milk and eat an orange. What many people don’t know today is that there’s a lot more to food than those individual minerals and vitamins.

The other “micronutrients” that aren’t quantified on a nutritional label – things like antioxidants – are just as important for your body.

That’s why the only type of vitamins you should focus on getting is from real food and whole plants. But what does that mean? This can get complicated, but try to look for labels that show vitamins coming from plants: “Vitamin D from Mushrooms” versus “Vitamin D from cholecalciferol." At GEM, we make sure we use whole plants and naturally extract the key vitamin and mineral essentials along with all the other beneficial compounds. Because it’s not only better for you, but your body actually absorbs the vitamins better when these co-factors are naturally present with them. It's also a lot cleaner than typical synthetics. 

How Much do we Need? 😕 

The Recommended Daily Allowances (RDA) is one way to gauge how much of which vitamin you need. The RDA is essentially the government’s best attempt to quantify the amount of vitamins we need by trying to knit a sweater for 99% of the population when the reality is that women and men simply need, on average, two different sizes of sweaters.

That’s why we designed GEM to give you the essentials that fit women best. We don’t give you 100% of everything and anything. We believe in eating food and you do get some vitamins + minerals from the food you eat everyday. So you just need to fill the gap in the things you need most (and that are tough to get). Plus, megadoses of vitamins can be harmful. While some vitamins (water-soluble) you can pee out, others (fat-soluble) can store up over time and become toxic at high levels.

The Future of Vitamins 🔮

As we look for salvation from our broken food system, we’ve become unavoidably dependent on vitamins. But we believe that doesn’t mean that your health means a tradeoff between vitamin deficiency or toxins, sugars, and chemicals. We believe that the choice for your health should be the same choice as better for you and the planet. We are inventing a new future of vitamins – one that comes from food, not a lab. A future where vitamins are real. Just like they were only 100 years ago.


Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

This article is based on scientific research and/or other scientific articles and contains trusted sources.

Our goal at GEM is to give readers up-to-date and objective information on health-related topics. GEM content is written by experienced health and lifestyle contributors and articles undergo an extensive review process.

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