The discovery of vitamins and the future of supplements

How husks ( the dry outer covering of some fruits or seeds) of rice and grains led to a discovery of essential nutrients called vitamins

Ahmed Bousuwa
4 min readJul 29, 2020

Did it ever occur to you where the name vitamin came? And why we need vitamins. The increasing number of variety of supplements I see in stores and the ongoing research and development right now have sparked my interest to know the history of vitamins. What is a vitamin? A micronutrient that we need in small quantities.

Three essential nutrients and the fallacy

Before the 19th-century chemists, and physiologists researching the compound of foods and nutritional requirements for humans and animals discovered that our diet needed to include three essential nutrients; Protein, Carbohydrate, and Fat.

Disease at the time believed to be rooted in lack of sanitation, so the solution was to sterilize food. Physiologists believed this solution would get rid of bacteria, mold, and toxins. For example, rice was polished, and other grains milled to remove husks. But those acts had harmful consequences, unknown at the time.

In the late 18th century, sailors during the long sailing ship voyage between 10- 12 weeks, were fed on dry food. Being on dry food for so long developed scurvy, a disease caused by a deficiency of vitamin C, characterized by Weakness, pains in the joints, loose teeth, and blood spots appearing all over the body, and finally, sudden death, which affected sailors to the end of the 18 century.

Another disease that seemed to be associated with a restricted diet was beriberi, characterized by inflammation of the nerves and heart failure, caused by a deficiency of vitamin B1. In both diseases, causes were not identified due to lack of some nutrients, what we call today vitamin.

The fallacy of polished rice and grains and roads to discovery

The Dutch physician and pathologist Christiaan Eijkman in the late 19th century had a nerve disease (polyneuritis) that broke into his laboratory chickens. He noticed that the illness is similar to beriberi associated with nutritional disorder. He demonstrated that polyneuritis caused by feeding chickens polished white rice, but that disappeared when animals fed unpolished rice.

The vitamins discovery and origin name

In 1912 a Polish scientist, Casimir Funk, demonstrated the same observation that polyneuritis produced in pigeons fed on polished rice. Could cure by providing the bird’s diet with a substance made of rice bran, a component of the outer husk that removed from rice during polishing.

Casimir Funk believed human diseases, particularly, beriberi, scurvy, and pellagra, caused by a deficiency of factors of the same chemical type. Each of these factors had a nitrogen-containing component knowing as amine, he called the compounds “vital amines” a term shortened to “vitamines” The final letter E dropped later when discovered that not all vitamins contain nitrogen, and thus not all are amines.

In 1913 American researcher Elmer McCollum divided vitamins into two groups: “fat-soluble A” and “water-soluble B.” As claims for the discovery of other vitamins multiplied, researchers called the new substances C, D, and so on.

The future of supplements

From essential nutrients to personalized and cognitive improvement supplements, new startups are finding new ways to innovate in the vitamins and supplements sphere.

There are more and more people around the world is realizing the value of good health, increasing interest in all things promote all aspects of health. Some factors behind the growth and need are: aging populations in the US, Europe, and Japan, more people are looking for a cure, and remedies, increased consumer awareness for preventative healthcare, and the rise of self-directed consumers.

The primary categories of vitamins and supplements are:

  • Energy/fitness: companies market their products as energy supplements, complements to an exercise regimen, or as enhancements to one’s fitness.
  • Anti-aging: Companies developing vitamins and supplements intended to ward off the biological effects of aging. For example, for example, a supplement claiming to prevent aging by providing the building blocks of cell function, DNA repair, and energy function.
  • Cognitive Health: Companies offer products to promote cognitive health and mental performance
  • Personalized: Companies develop supplements customized to consumer needs and preferences.
  • Botanicals: Companies develop plant-based supplements, for example, plant-based protein supplements.
  • Multi-product: Companies offer products that fit in more than one category. For instance, offering supplements that target joint support, fitness, gastrointestinal issues, and neurological support.

As of 2017, the market size globally is 48.5 billion dollars and expected to grow to 81 billion dollars worldwide. There will be more innovation and research and development in the industry. Health is hot a sector as the realization of each one of us to stay healthy, looking young, fit, and live longer. Health is becoming a lifestyle choice.



Ahmed Bousuwa

Design Strategist. Help companies & ventures with complex challenges. Setting direction for strategic initiatives & desired goals.