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vitamin

Introduction

vitamin, group of organic substances that are required in the diet of humans and animals for normal growth, maintenance of life, and normal reproduction. Vitamins act as catalysts; very often either the vitamins themselves are coenzymes, or they form integral parts of coenzymes. A substance that functions as a vitamin for one species does not necessarily function as a vitamin for another species. The vitamins differ in structure, and there is no chemical grouping common to them all.

They were first called accessory factors because in 1906 it was found by English biochemist Sir F. G. Hopkins that most foods contain—besides carbohydrates, proteins, fats, minerals, and water—other substances necessary for health. The word vitamin was derived from the term vitamine, used by Polish-American biochemist Casimir Funk to describe an amine (organic base) that was essential to life (it was later found to be thiamine). In 1912 Hopkins and Funk formulated the vitamin hypothesis of deficiency disease; that is, that certain diseases are caused by a dietary lack of specific vitamins.

The chemical structures of the vitamins are all known, and all of them have been synthesized; the vitamins in foods are identical to the synthetic ones. A well-balanced diet usually satisfies the minimum vitamin requirements of human beings. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of each vitamin is the standard guideline put forward by the Food and Nutrition Board, National Academy of Sciences–National Research Council. It is based on the nutritional needs of an average, healthy person. Different amounts may be recommended for children, older people, lactating mothers, or people dealing with an ongoing disease process. The U.S. RDA was the federal government's interpretation of the National Research Council's RDA. Since mid-1994, the U.S. RDA has been replaced on food labels by a Percent Daily Value (the percentage of the U.S. RDA that the labeled food offers). Listings for vitamins A and C are required; others are optional.

The amount of each vitamin that should be consumed for optimal health and the wisdom of taking vitamin supplements, especially in "megadoses," is a controversial question. The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 defined vitamins as dietary supplements (rather than drugs) and shifted the burden of proof of safety from the manufacturers to the Food and Drug Administration. Although vitamins were previously seen only as preventives against the various deficiency diseases, more and more studies have examined additional health benefits of vitamins. Health claims that are unsubstantiated by scientific study, however, are regarded by many health and nutrition experts as fraudulent or dangerous, and many physicians now question the need for healthy persons to take multivitamin supplements, because many foods, such as milk and bread, are fortified with vitamins.

Vitamins were originally classified according to their solubility in water or fats, and as more and more were discovered they were also classified alphabetically. The fat-soluble vitamins are A, D, E, and K; the B complex and C vitamins are water soluble. A group of substances that decrease blood capillary fragility, called the vitamin P group, are no longer considered to be vitamins.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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