It's hard to imagine that during the 1970s, when scientist and nutrition pioneer Linus Pauling trumpeted megadoses of vitamin C, vitamins were still considered by many to be for health nuts and weirdos.
These supplements -- once called "vitamines" -- were once touted as miracle cures, beauty boosts, and sex aids. Yet as the century has progressed, vitamins have slowly worked their way into the mainstream, helping to prevent a host of ailments.
By 1921, only vitamins A, B, and C were known, according to Rima L. Apple, author of Vitamania and a professor of consumer science at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Thanks in part to increasing government interest in nutrition, by the 1940s the number of known vitamins was 20.
All About C
A century or more before Linus Pauling, English sailors ate limes to prevent an anemia-causing condition called scurvy. Preventing scurvy wasn't the only merit of vitamin C. By the time a researcher dubbed vitamin C a "mystic white crystal of health" in 1938, its antioxidant qualities were well-documented -- and linked to helping prevent cancers and heart disease.
While clinical trials over the years have failed to support Pauling's argument that vitamin C prevents colds, a National Institutes of Health study shows high doses may help people fight cancer, heart disease, cataracts, and possibly arthritis.
During World War II, soldiers were shipped off to battle with vitamin packets along with their rations. Researchers argued that workers taking vitamin B seemed calmer and were less likely to go on strike. By 1937, manufacturers regularly enriched flour with niacin, one of the B vitamins. The supplement helped prevent a disease then commonly known as pellagra -- a lack of niacin that can lead to stomach problems and even mental disorder.
We all get some form of B vitamin in the grains we eat, but most of us must take supplements to get all our bodies need. In January 1998, the FDA required food makers to enrich bread and cereals with B vitamins.
One of the most important B vitamins is folic acid. In 1991, new research found that women taking supplemental folic acid before pregnancy had fewer birth defects such as spina bifida in their unborn children. The next year, the U.S. Public Health Service recommended that women in their childbearing years increase their intake of folic acid from 180 to 400 micrograms a day.
A recent Food and Drug Administration study also found a possible link between children with Down's syndrome and low levels of folic acid in their mothers during pregnancy. "It's been the most amazing breakthrough in pregnancy in the whole century," says Elizabeth Ward, a registered dietitian and author of Pregnancy Nutrition.
Popeye ate spinach -- rich in vitamin E -- to boost his strength. But vitamin E has a racier reputation. Its chemical name, tocopherol, comes from the Greek word meaning "to bear offspring" -- a reference to its reputation for improving sexual prowess.
"It was sort of the naughty vitamin," says Jeffrey Blumberg, PhD, a professor of nutrition at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston.
In the 1990s vitamin E has been revealed as a powerful antioxidant as well. In 1993, researchers from Harvard University found that those who took vitamin E reduced their risk of heart disease by nearly 40 percent, says Meir Stampfer, MD, a researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health.
But it's impossible to get an optimal dose of vitamin E from your diet, so supplements are necessary.
On the Horizon
What's coming up with nutritional supplements?
To start with, take a look in your salad bowl. In the last 10 years, scientists have worked to identify phytochemicals, the compounds that make fruits, grains, legumes and vegetables so good for us. These compounds include lycopene, the natural antioxidant found in tomatoes.
New research may also begin to identify why certain people are more likely to respond to vitamin therapy than others. "What the last 15 or 20 years have given us are the associations between vitamin intake and certain diseases," says Jacob Selhub, PhD, of Tufts University's Jean Mayer Center. "What the next century will show us is what's the causality."