By Heidemarie Puetz
Whether as a serum, in tablet form or by weight, vitamin C supplements sell very well indeed. Many buyers - often spurred by hyped advertisements - expect health benefits from the supposed wonder nutrient that medical experts question.
There’s no doubt, however, that vitamin C - scientifically known as L-ascorbic acid - prevents and cures scurvy, a nutritional deficiency disease characterised by fatigue, anaemia, joint and muscle pain, bruising, connective tissue weakness, poor wound healing, bleeding gums and loosening or loss of teeth.
Fatal if left untreated, scurvy was called ‘the plague of the sea’ in the 18th century as it decimated ship crews with little or no vitamin C intake on lengthy voyages.
This year marks the 250th anniversary of the first Pacific voyage by British naval officer and explorer James Cook, one of the pioneers in the fight against scurvy.
Organised by the Royal Society in conjunction with the Admiralty of the Royal Navy, the expedition aboard the HMS Endeavour began on August 26, 1768, ending in 1771.
Another Pacific voyage followed in 1772, and a third in 1776, during which Cook was killed by natives in Hawaii.
Cook experimented with a variety of substances presumed to have antiscorbutic (anti-scurvy) properties, including cress, sauerkraut, carrot marmelade, mustard, rob of lemon and orange.
Remarkably, not one of his crew died of scurvy, the most frequent cause of death at sea until the end of the 18th century.
In 1747, Sir James Lind, a Royal Navy surgeon, had conducted experiments in which he determined that citrus fruits or juices were effective in treating scurvy.
However, he didn’t propagate his findings strongly enough, says Dr Ulrich Troehler, emeritus professor of the history of medicine at the University of Bern (UNIBE) in Switzerland.
Moreover, in the postscript to the third and final edition of his A Treatise of the Scurvy,published between 1753 and 1772 and summarising a century of work on the disease, Lind concluded that it had no definitive remedy.
Cook and Royal Navy surgeon William Perry, who sailed with him on the Endeavour, preferred wort as an antiscorbutic sea medicine - now known to be useless for this purpose.
It wasn’t until the mid-1780s that British surgeon Robert Robertson and Gilbert Blane, physician to the West Indies fleet, convinced the Admiralty of the efficacy of lemon juice, which was officially adopted for use against scurvy in 1795.
It wouldn’t be until 1928 that Hungarian biochemist Albert Szent-Gyorgyi first isolated vitamin C from plant juices and adrenal gland extracts, naming it hexuronic acid, now known as ascorbic acid. Four years later, it was identified as the curative agent for scurvy.
In 1933, British chemist Sir Norman Haworth and Polish-born Swiss chemist Tadeus Reichstein independently succeeded in chemically synthesising the vitamin, the first to be artificially produced.
Reichstein’s method was superior, allowing the vitamin to be synthesised in bulk. It was patented and sold to the Swiss pharmaceutical company Hoffmann-La Roche, which marketed the vitamin as a dietary supplement under the brand name Redoxon. Thus began the spectacular career of vitamin C, an essential dietary component found mainly in fruits and vegetables including citrus fruits, berries, Brussels sprouts and spinach. It is involved in many metabolic processes and as an antioxidant may limit the damaging effects of free radicals, the molecules produced when the body breaks down food or is exposed to tobacco smoke and radiation.
“In the beginning, no medical need was seen [for vitamin C supplements], and then they became a blockbuster,” says Beat Baechi, a research fellow at the UNIBE’s Institute for the History of Medicine. “It was a matter of boosting individual performance. You were already regarded as ill if you weren’t at your top performance level.”
Use of the supplements soared in the 1970s when American scientist and two-time Nobel Prize winner, Linus Pauling advocated mega-doses of vitamin C for the common cold, cancer and even schizophrenia.
The medical community was unconvinced.
Today there’s hardly a processed food without the additive E300 - ascorbic acid. It’s found, for example, in bread and yogurt. As an antioxidant, it increases shelf life and helps maintain colour.
While sales of vitamin supplements continue to boom, many experts say they’re unnecessary and instead recommend a diet low in meat and high in fruit and vegetables. Vitamin C in excess of the body’s needs is quickly excreted in urine anyway.
According to the German Nutrition Society, a sufficient daily intake is 110 milligrams for men and 95 for women - amounts provided by eating half a red pepper or an orange. And it’s now known that just 10 milligrams daily is enough to prevent scurvy.– DPA
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