By Cat, June 2007; updated May 2019
Vitamins are essential nutrients that the body needs but cannot make – it doesn’t have the enzymes – so they must be obtained in our diet, or made by a healthy microbiome. In other words, they are “essential.” Several of the original vitamins were later discovered to be made by our bodies, so they were declared “non-essential” and removed from the list; several new ones have been added, as they were discovered.
When I was a kid in the early 1950s, families were just beginning to talk about vitamins at the dinner table. Classrooms encouraged kids to share the Four Basic Food Groups (eggs & dairy; meat; fruits & vegetables; and starches) with their parents, and to encourage eating according to this plan, in order to assure all the important vitamins and minerals as well as other nutrients were present in the daily diet.
[For an interesting take on the Four Food Groups, see Dr. Michael Fine’s essay on Daily Yonder: To Heck with the Four Food Groups (2).]
At that time, we learned about:
- Vitamin A: carotenes from plants and retinols from animals,
- Vitamin B: a family of vitamins from many different foods, including B1 (thiamin), B2 (riboflavin) and B3 (niacin),
- Vitamin C (ascorbic acid for ascorbate),
- Vitamin D (cholecalciferol, ergocalciferol and related chemicals), and
- Vitamin E (tocopherols and tocotrienols)
Since that time, others have been added, including more members of B-family, vitamin F (essential fatty acids) and vitamin K (various quinones).
- Includes: 1. Vitamins (About); 2. Cat’s Concerns; 3. Vitamin Supplementation vs Whole Foods; 4. Whole Foods
- See also: 1. Diet & Health Menu; 2. Supplements vs Whole Foods (Intro); 3. Vitamin A; 4. Vitamin B family; 5. Vitamin C; 6. Vitamin D; 7. Vitamin E; 8. Vitamin F; 9. Vitamin K;
- Other sites: 1. Dr Royal Lee on Dr Weston A. Price’s X-Factor (historical archive), and related articles on the Selene River Press website (4); 2. Organic Consumers Association articles on Dr. Royal Lee (7A, 7B)
NOTE: Consult with your health practitioner before taking any supplements. Overuse of supplements, just as overuse of drugs, can lead to other health problems, and some supplements can interact negatively with other supplements or drugs.
Remember that the best way to get your vitamins, minerals and other nutrients is from fresh whole foods. However, as we age past 60, our bodies may not absorb the nutrients well, so that supplements become more important.
See Vitamins: Intro for
- Introduction: Vitamins
- Vitamin Supplementation vs Whole Foods
The concept of The first vitamin to be discovered – vitamin A – was in 1913, by researchers Elmer V. McCollum and Marguerite Davis, but it was not given the name “vitamin A” at that time. In 1913, Yale researchers Thomas Osborne and Lafayette Mendel discovered that butter contained a fat-soluble nutrient that gave butter its yellow hue. It was first synthesized in 1947. Vitamin C was synthesized earlier, in 1935. Thiamine, or vitamin B (now B1) was the first to be discovered scientifically around 1915-16. See ThoughtCo (9) and Vitamins-Nutrition (10) for more about the history of vitamins.
However, the dawn of the concept of important nutrients in food goes back to Biblical time, during the time of the Egyptian empire. It was discovered mid-1700s that citrus fruits could prevent scurvy, but vitamin C was not identified nor isolated until the 20th century. (11) “In 1905, an Englishmen named William Fletcher became the first scientist to determine whether the removal of special factors, known as vitamins, from food would lead to diseases.” (9) The word “vitamin” (as “vitamine”) “was first used in 1911 by the Polish scientist Cashmir Funk to designate a group of compounds considered vital for life.” (10)
Over time it was discovered that while most vitamins are water-soluble, some were only fat-soluble. This is an important distinction, because excess water-soluble vitamins are excreted, so need to be replenished each day; while excess fat-soluble vitamins are stored in fatty tissue for future use.
As of my May 2019 update: I discuss the following in this article, dividing them between those that are water-soluble (B, C) and those that are fat soluble. (A, D, E, F and K).
- Essential vitamins are:
- A (retinol, retinal, retinoic acid, and several pro-vitamin A carotenoids),
- B1 (thiamin),
- B2 (riboflavin),
- B3 (niacin and 2 other forms: niacinamide and nicotinamide-riboside)
- B5 (pantothenic acid),
- B6 (pyridine and 6 other natural forms),
- B7 (biotin),
- B9 (folate),
- B12 (cobalamin)
- C (ascorbic acid),
- D (cholecalciferol or D3, and ergocalciferol or D2),
- E (tocopherols and tocotrienols),
- F (Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids)
- K (phylloquinone (K1), menaquinone (K2); K2 has a range of homologue forms from MK7 – MK11)
- “Non-essential” vitamins are:
- B4* (choline, tho some people use the name B4 for adenine**),
- B8* (inositol),
- B10 (para amino benzoic acid or PABA),
- B11 (salicylic acid).
‘* Both choline and inositol are present in lecithin.
‘** Adenine is one of the five nitrogenous bases (cytosine, guanine, adenine, thymine and uracil) that helps make up the code in DNA and RNA. It is also an important part of adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, which is essential for energy transfer. (12)
- The so-called non-essential vitamins can be made by the body when we are young, but as we age, we make less and less of then, and benefit from taking them supplementally. I recently learned about the importance of taking inositol supplementally to reverse my insulin resistance (see my article Inositol, Choline and Insulin Resistance for more).
- Vitamin D is considered by some to be non-essential because it is made in our skin (from cholesterol), using UVB energy from the sun. But if you live in one of the polar regions (dark half the year), or if you have an allergy to the sun (like me), it is an essential vitamin. See also my article on Vitamin D.
- Vitamin F includes the essential poly-unsaturated fatty acids (Omega-3 and Omega-6), but many do not classify these as vitamins.
- Vitamin K is a newish vitamin; although the molecule was discovered in 1929 by Henrick Dam, it was only generally accepted by researchers as a vitamin in the 1970s. The general public became aware of it in the 1990s-2000s. (3) See also my article on Vitamin K.
- As science continues to study the effect of vitamin supplementation on human health, it becomes increasingly clear that isolated vitamins (as in supplements) are not as effective as vitamins present in whole foods. Indeed, vitamin supplementation seems to be a way of creating very expensive urine.
- In the case of the antioxidant vitamins (A, C and E), when in whole foods, they are always just one part of a complex of molecules. Many researchers now speculate that the true vitamin is NOT the antioxidant component, but rather that which it is protecting from oxidation. For example, polyunsaturated essential fatty acids in the natural state NEVER exist without vitamin E bound to them. This is because the double bonds in the fatty acids are highly vulnerable to oxidation, and require vitamin E to keep them unharmed. Indeed, these essential fatty acids have been designated as vitamin F, because we cannot exist without them (deficiencies lead to health problems and disease).
- What is the real vitamin E? Dr. Royal Lee’s 1942 article, “Butter, Vitamin E, and the “X” Factor of Dr. Price” (4B) makes a very important postulation:
“Up to the present, vitamin E has been considered a tocopherol, and its function has been analyzed as nothing more than a physiological antioxidant [See Dr Lee’s reference no. 7, below]. It now appears evident that the real vitamin E is that factor in the E complex that is being protected from oxidation by the tocopherol group and that the same mistake has been made in attributing E activity to tocopherols as in promoting pure viosterol as vitamin D, ascorbic acid as vitamin C, niacin as the anti-pellagra vitamin, pyridoxine as B6, or folic acid as the anti–pernicious-anemia fraction of liver. …
The true vitamin E is found in the chromatin material of the germinal tissues of plant and animal and in young plants that are in a state of rapid growth. It seems to be a phospholipid carrying a special fatty acid in combination that has heretofore traveled under the cognomen of vitamin F. (Vitamin F was first discovered as a part of the wheat germ oil vitamin complex—at least the term vitamin F was first used to designate the essential fatty acid fraction.)”
Dr Lee’s References:
7. Rosenberg, H.R. The Chemistry and Physiology of the Vitamins. New York: Interscience Publishers, 1945
In other words, the real vitamin E may NOT be a tocopherol at all, but rather what Dr. Price called the X-Factor or Factor-X, which is now known as vitamin K1 in dark green leafy vegetables. However, it has since been determined the X-Factor is K2-MK7. Instead the tocopherol (Vitamin E) is the protector of vitamin K. (5B) This is not the only instance of vitamin E being the protector of another vitamin, and not the true ‘vitamin.’ It also protects Vitamin A (see item #6 above).
Vitamin Supplementation vs Whole Foods
Recognizing that vitamins are part of a molecular complex opens up a whole new way of looking at vitamins, and may explain why some of the recent research using megadoses of certain vitamin supplements indicates no appreciable benefit, or perhaps has a negative effect. For example, treating with vitamin E to reduce incidence of heart attacks and heart failure, does not appear to produce the desired result, perhaps because other molecules in the needed complex are not available (in the research substrates) to work with vitamin E.
The B vitamins, while not mainly antioxidant in purpose, may also prove to be part of a complex with other critical nutrients, and when isolated from the complex, decrease in potency.
The fat soluble vitamins A, D and K work together for many functions, and when out of balance, can cause adverse affects.
For these reasons, I always recommend eating a broad whole-food diet rich in fresh, minimally processed foods, as the best means of obtaining all the vitamins needed for health. Next best is a whole food multi such as Mercola’s (iHerb code MCL-01035 for men, and MCL-01939 for women). Supplements of individual vitamins should always be taken with caution, and only under the guidance of a qualified health professional. Even “one-a-day” type multivitamins may be ill-advised; many are synthetically produced, may not even be the active form of the vitamins, and may not provide the amounts per vitamin as advertised on the label.
For example: Here are several examples of studies pointing to the risks of certain supplements for cancer patients (1):
- A 1995 report indicated cancer cells in a petri dish thrive in the presence of ascorbic acid (isolated vitamin C); subsequent studies suggest that vitamin C supplementation may lower survival rates (from cancer).
- Another study on patients with cancers of the head and neck: those who took vitamin E supplements had increased risk of developing a second cancer.
- A 2004 study found that antioxidants did not prevent gastrointestinal cancers, and may have increased mortality risk.
On the other hand, other research has demonstrated time after time, that eating whole foods high in these vitamins and antioxidants strengthen the immune system, helping to ward off disease, and to hasten recovery from disease. “Something essential is lost when nutrients are isolated from the whole food; that something is ‘synergy’.” (1)
For an interesting history of supplemental vitamins and other nutrients, centered around Dr. Royal Lee (founder of Standard Process supplements among many other great accomplishments), see the following articles on the Organic Consumer’s Association site:
- All about Dr. Royal Lee, the Father of Natural Vitamins, by David Morris, DO (7A);
- The Story of Dr. Royal Lee, the Founder of Standard Process (7B).
See also articles on DrRoyalLee (dot) com; the following are quotes from each article:
- What is a Vitamin? (Every Vitamin is a Biological Mechanism). He illustrates “the profound differences between synthetic and natural vitamins by comparing the single chemical ascorbic acid—what is commonly considered vitamin C today—and natural vitamin C, a synergistic complex of compounds that includes not just ascorbic acid but assorted bioflavonoids, vitamin K, and tyrosinase” (8A)
- The Great Cover-Up: Processed Foods Cause Disease. ““In countries where ‘civilized,’ adulterated foods are not used, there is no cancer, no tuberculosis, no pneumonia, no heart disease, no diabetes, no arthritis to speak of…It seems that only a liberal use of white flour and white sugar can cause the extraordinarily high death rate so obvious wherever these foods are common.” Dr. Royal Lee, 1958 (8B)
- Forgotten Findings: about the book Foundations of Trophotherapy, by nutrition historian and educator Mark R. Anderson (8C); see more on The Selene River Press Historical Archives (4E)
Healthful meals are comprised of whole foods as much as possible, especially fresh (or dehydrated/home canned/frozen) organic or biodynamic foods grown by someone you know. It means avoiding prepared and processed foods (commercially canned, bottled, boxed, or frozen), and especially avoiding foods made with highly processed or artificial ingredients, or are GMO. For:
- Fresh fruits and veggies, shop at your local Farmer’s Market or sign up for a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture); if those are not possible, then select Organically-grown produce from a local market whenever possible. If purchasing commercially canned or frozen fruits/veggies, choose Organic whenever possible.
- Meats and eggs, select brands that are from pastured and truly free-range animals, preferably from farmers/ranchers you know or trust. Or hunt for local wild animals during hunting season, then freeze the meats you don’t use right away.
- Fish, choose wild-caught over farmed whenever possible.
Know your ingredients; know your cook. Refer to my articles: Diet for Health, Whole Foods: What they Are, Which Are Not, and Supplements vs Whole Foods (Intro) for more on this.
- (1) well.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/02/06/despite-risks-vitamins-popular-with-cancer-patients/
- (6) dailyyonder.com/four-food-groups/2010/03/04/2623
- NCBI: (new) ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23183291
- Selene River Press:
- Dr Royal Lee’s original article on Dr Weston A. Price’s X-Factor: seleneriverpress.com/historical/dr-royal-lee-on-the-x-factor-of-dr-weston-a-price/; or see the original article: 6sd6hj41ya-flywheel.netdna-ssl.com/images/pdfs/40_weston_price_vitamin_f.pdf (I’ve also saved it as a pdf: CATSFORK > PDF FILES / Price-VitaminF-XFactor_Dr RoyalLee.pdf)
- Butter, Vitamin E, and the X-Factor (historical archive of Dr Lee’s article) (seleneriverpress.com/historical/butter-vitamin-e-and-the-x-factor-of-weston-a-price/)
- Lectures of Dr. Royal Lee, Vitamin News (seleneriverpress.com/shop/lectures-of-dr-royal-lee-volume-i-pdf-ebook/
- Vitamin News, a collection of all the biannual issues in one book: (seleneriverpress.com/shop/vitamin-news/)
- SRP Historical Archives: seleneriverpress.com/srp-historical-archives/
- Articles on The X-Factor of Dr. Weston A. Price:
- More articles by Dr. Royal Lee: soilandhealth.org/wp-content/uploads/02/0203CAT/royal.lee.lets.live.articles.htm
- OCA articles:
- All about Dr. Royal Lee, the Father of Natural Vitamins, by David Morris, DO: organicconsumers.org/news/all-about-dr-royal-lee-father-natural-vitamins
- The Story of Dr. Royal Lee, the Founder of Standard Process (standardprocess.com/Products/Literature/The-Story-of-Dr-Royal-Lee)
- Dr. Royal Lee articles
- What is a Vitamin? (drroyallee.com/what-is-a-vitamin/)
- The Great Coverup: Processed Foods Cause Disease (drroyallee.com/the-great-cover-up/)
- Forgotten Findings.drroyallee.com/forgotten-findings/
- ThoughtCo: the History of Vitamins: Special Factors in Food (thoughtco.com/history-of-the-vitamins-4072556
- Vitamins-Nutrition: vitamins-nutrition.org/vitamins/history-vitamins.html
- Answers.com: answers.com/Q/What_was_the_first_vitamin_discovered
[NOTE: All but two of my references on my original iWeb article are no longer valid. Here they are:
- well.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/02/06/despite-risks-vitamins-popular-with-cancer-patients/ (still good – see Reference 1 on list above)
Dr Royal Lee’s article: ppnf.org/catalog/ppnf/Articles/XFactor.htm <t the ppnf part has changed to “price-pottenger.org.” I need to become a member to view the articles. Is this the article meant (s/b by Dr. Royal Lee)? https://price-pottenger.org/journals/x-factor-butter-oil-visit-green-pastures-farm See Ref 4 below vitamins-supplements.org/vitamin-E.php < not secure & no longer valid Dr Lee’s article above (duplicate of #2) http://www.vitaminuk.com/pages/articles/codliveroil.htm < not valid; the following is valid: https://www.vitaminsuk.com, but has an ‘s’ after vitamin, and I can’t find article
- dailyyonder.com/four-food-groups/2010/03/04/2623 (still good – see Reference 2 on list above)]