|MadSci Network: Medicine|
First a little background on vitamins: The word vitamin was coined in 1912 by Dr. Casmir Funk, a Polish scientist who was searching for a cure for beriberi, a paralyzing disease that was common in regions where white rice was the main staple in the diet. Earlier work had zeroed in on rice polishings--the husk and bran that are removed when brown rice is made into white--as containing some factor that could combat beriberi. Funk eventually identified the key compound, called thiamin, and dubbed it a "vital amine." This was shortened to "vitamin," which continues to stand for the entire class of essential compounds. What Are Vitamins? Vitamins are a diverse group of chemicals, but they have a few things in common: . Compared with other nutrients, vitamins are needed only in trace amounts. All the required daily vitamins could fit in one-eighth of a teaspoon. . Vitamins don't provide any calories. . All vitamins are "organic," because they're based on the element carbon. . Vitamins perform specific metabolic functions in the cell--the basic unit of life. . Vitamins cannot be made by the body in quantities large enough to meet the body's needs. . Their absence from the diet leads to a failure to thrive and the development of a deficiency disease. . All vitamins can be found in food. Not all animals require the same vitamins. For example, humans are among the few animal groups that cannot manufacture their own vitamin C (ascorbic acid). This means your dog or cat does not need a daily ration of ascorbic acid, but you do. The Naming of Vitamins Orignally it was not imagined that there would be so many different vitamins. Back in 1913, the scientists came up with a naming system that was based on two groupings; those that would dissolve in fat, called "Fat soluble A" vitamins, and those that would dissolve in water, referred to as the "Water Soluble B" vitamins. The vitamin compounds were named in order of discovery, and when it was determined that there were many, they moved on to C, D, E and so forth. Many times a substance thought to be a vitamim was found to not be essential. When this happened, the letter was passed by and the next one used. In some cases, the first letter for the function of the compound was used in its name. For example vitamin K comes from the German "koagulation" (coagulation), which is a term that stands for the clotting of blood, a process in which the substance called vitamin K was found to play a role. The "B" vitamins were thought to be only one compound. But when it was found that there were many involved, they were named vitamin B1, B2 and so forth. Again, when a compound thougt to be a vitamin proved to not have any essential quality, the number was abandoned. Ed Blonz, Ph.D.
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