By Alina Baiju and Annie Lin
Historical Discovery of Vitamin C
In 1928, Hungarian doctor and biochemist Albert Szent-Gyorgyi found a very small amount of a mysterious crystallized material near the kidneys of a cow. Believing he had found a brand new substance, he decided to name the material hexuronic acid, named after its six carbon atoms. However, due to the lack of proper scientific technology in the first half of the 20th century, Szent-Gyorgyi was unable to clearly determine the substance's complete molecular structure with such a tiny amount. To obtain a greater mass of the mysterious new material, he began to look for other sources that contained this substance.
Though it was also present in many various fresh foods, in particular, fresh fruits, the large quantities of sugar in the fruits made it difficult to isolate the substance. He eventually found the substance again; this time in Hungarian paprika. After separating one kilogram of the substance from the paprika, he worked with chemist Norman Haworth to determine its molecular substance, which they found to be C6H8O6. It was then that they decided to rename this substance from hexuronic acid to ascorbic acid, an antioxidant (substance that inhibits oxidation) that is now commonly known as vitamin C.
As a result of their discovery, both Szent-Gyorgyi and Haworth were awarded with Nobel Prizes, with Szent-Gyorgyi's in medicine and Haworth's in chemistry.
Importance of Ascorbic Acid in the Human Diet
The majority of mammals (such as the cow that Szent-Gyorgyi extracted the original sample of ascorbic acid from) have the ability to self-produce vitamin C from glucose through a series of four reactions. However, primates, guinea pigs and fruit bats lack the ability to do so and must find means to ingest it in some way. Humans are missing the enzyme necessary to catalyze the fourth and final reaction that is necessary to produce vitamin C in their bodies and thus must eat healthy diets with fresh fruits, vegetables and/or meats (where ascorbic acid can be found) to account for this.
Even a century after Szent-Gyorgyi's discovery, ascorbic acid still remains a relatively mysterious substance. Research is still being done on the roles that ascorbic acid plays in the body, and scientists are still examining its involvement in biochemical pathways.
The importance of presence of ascorbic acid in the human diet was most evident during the Age of Discovery. Starting in the early 15th century, the Age of Discovery was a time where countries (especially the major western European powers such as Great Britain, France, Portuguese, etc.) sought to expand their empire by finding and conquering new lands and to engage in trading with other countries (particularly with those in Asia for their desirable spices and silk cloths). Technology advanced. New navigational devices were invented, and ships were made to withstand deeper waters and longer trips.
However, because of the long routes that had to be taken to reach their destinations, voyages often lasted several months or even years at a time. As a consequence, sailors were only able to bring foods on board that could resist the long periods of time and the harsh weather at sea, including preserved, salted meats, hardtack (a nearly unchewable type of "bread) and soured beer. Vitamin-C rich fruits and veggies were left forgotten back home.
The result of these poor diets were devastating. A massive number of deaths began taking place out at sea due to a disease called scurvy that was caused by a deficiency in ascorbic acid. The symptoms of scurvy include exhaustion, weakness, diarrhea, muscle pain, swelling of arms/legs, hemorrhaging, bruising, lung/kidney problems, softening of gums (which made it difficult to eat hardtack), bleeding red gums, depression and more. They began appearing in sailors in only six weeks out at sea. This disease alone was responsible for more deaths out at sea than any other death cause. 90 percent of Ferdinand Magellan's crew died during his circumnavigation of the globe and nearly two thirds of Vasco da Gama's crew died during his sail around the southern tip of Africa, all due to the lack of vitamin C.
Benefits of Citrus Fruit
The importance of vitamin C was emphasized by the observations and research of the Scottish physician James Lind, who had looked into the preventative and health benefits of citrus fruits — including its products such as lemon and lime juice — during his time as a naval surgeon. Afterwards, he wrote a treatise recommending mandatory consumption of citrus fruits by British sailors to solve the issue of the scurvy-stricken naval forces. His research proved effective when the issuance of lime juice to all sailors resulted in the gradual elimination of scurvy within the entire British fleet by 1795 — before ascorbic acid was discovered as the factor in citrus that prevents scurvy.
The importance of vitamin C was further reinforced by the 1769 experiments of the British physician William Stark, who carried out many experiments on nutrition with only himself as the subject. The experiment included adjusting his diet to determine the relative importance of each food group — sadly resulting in his demise. Stark began his experiments by consuming only bread and water for about a month, adding other foods to his diet (ex: olive oil, figs, goose meat, milk) after each set period of time. After two months had passed, Stark recorded that he had red, swollen, bleeding gums — scurvy, from the lack of vitamin C in his diet. Even though Stark's diet was rich in meat and starch, he died within seven months of its inception due to the scurvy and cumulative malnutrition caused by the diet devoid of fresh vegetables and citrus fruits.
Modern Impact on Human Health and Diseases
Ascorbic acid, or vitamin C, is still relevant to the modern world despite the opinions of any dissenters. The foods that contain it, such as citrus fruits, are encouraged to be eaten in all schools in order to prevent future ascorbic acid-related issues, and any existing cases of scurvy are rare, as its dangers are well known. Orange juice is a fan-favorite, and orange slices are often offered as meal-chasers at many restaurants. Additionally, daily dosage charts for vitamin C have been written so that the risk of obtaining any vitamin C-deficiency illnesses are even further reduced. So if anything, the impact of ascorbic acid has become more prominent in the modern day.
One issue with ascorbic acid is that it has often been believed to be associated with many diseases, including coronary heart disease, stroke and cancer. However, this controversy has been proven false multiple times in the past.
Coronary heart disease is a disorder characterized by plaque buildup in the arterial walls. According to many prospective cohort studies and and other examinations, the relationship between dietary vitamin C intake and the risk for coronary heart disease is, in fact, inversely related.
Stroke is a cerebrovascular event, classified as either hemorrhagic — which is when a weakened blood vessel ruptures, resulting in a bleed-out into nearby brain tissue — or ischemic, which is when an a blocking of the blood vessels into the brain block cranial blood flow. There was, for many years, believed to be a correlation between amount of vitamin C consumed and risk of stroke, and that has been confirmed. According to a study of a rural community in Japan, those that consumed the highest levels of vitamin C had the lowest risk of stroke — yet another inverse relationship between a potentially life-threatening disease and the consumption of ascorbic acid.
As for cancer, which is an often fatal disease caused by abnormal or out-of-control cell growth in the body, it is also a disease that has also been previously associated with vitamin C consumption. In general, studies report no associations between the consumption of vitamin C and the risk of developing a given type of cancer, with the occasional moderate inverse association. To be more specific, two large studies concluded that vitamin C intake is inversely associated with breast cancer, several observational studies have concluded that increased dietary intake of vitamin C decreases risk of stomach cancer, and that dietary intake of vitamin C was not associated with colon cancer.