The Glorious History of Food Supplements

Why are vitamins called so? Because they give life. Here’s the story behind their discovery.

“Let food be thy medicine” is not only the most famous quote by Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine, it’s also a proof that the awareness of how food can influence our body and mind can be traced back to many centuries ago. At that time, 5th century B.C. sportsmen and warriors were already consuming all kinds of foods like herbs, or specific parts of animals, hoping to enhance their performance on the field.

The idea is quite an old one, but why have we used the term “glorious” in our title? Because the history of food supplements starts with vitamins, and it starts by saving lives.

In 1747, British Naval Surgeon James Lind understood that he could prevent sailors from dying from scurvy by simply adding lemon and oranges to their diet. So, for the first time, it became clear that something missing from the diet could have very serious consequences.

There was no notion of vitamins back then. Indeed, according to the prevalent theory, scientists believed that conditions such as scurvy, pellagra or beriberi (caused by lack of vitamin C, B3, and B1 respectively) were in fact caused by germs or microbes.

Let’s take beriberi for example, a condition that can affect the nervous system, cause amnesia and give neurologic and psychiatric problems. The search for the “beriberi microbe” went on for so long and was so unsuccessful, that researchers started to consider other tracks, until they noticed that this condition affected people and animals whose diet consisted mainly of white polished rice.

The big breakthrough came in 1926, when a Polish chemist called Casimir Funk was finally able to isolate the “beriberi antidote,” a nitrogen amine-based compound called thiamine. And because thiamine could save lives, Funk thought of a buzzword to create interest in the emerging new nutritional field (also showing an inclination for marketing), and called it vitalamine.

From this moment, more and more vitamins were discovered and scientifically linked to other conditions, and started to be added to food staples like bread, milk, and breakfast cereals.

But it was not only vitamins, the whole field of nutrition changed completely, becoming an official specialty within biological sciences.

Flash forward to now, the range of recognized food supplements has extended to minerals, herbs, fatty acids, amino acids, proteins and so on. In the beginning however, there was a group of scientists with a determination to fight deadly nutritional deficiencies.

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Purextract has been producing plant sterols and polyphenols from maritime pine, grape seed and olive leaf Health, which are used today by major actors of the food supplements.

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