MadSci Network: Medicine

Re: Why do the vitamins have the letters they do, why do they skip some letters

Date: Wed Feb 3 12:43:02 1999
Posted By: Ed Blonz, Faculty, Nutrition, Nutrition Resource
Area of science: Medicine
ID: 917365534.Me

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 

  . Compared with other nutrients, vitamins are needed only in trace 
amounts. All the required daily vitamins could fit in one-eighth of a 

  . Vitamins don't provide any calories.

  . All vitamins are "organic," because they're based on the element 

  . 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 

    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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