Why are Vitamins Named Using the Alphabet?

By TodayIFoundOut.com on at

Easily identifiable by simple terms, the vitamins we recognise today were only recently isolated, identified and named.


Roots of Vitamins

Scientists studying why animals failed to thrive (deficiency diseases) were the first to discover vitamins. One of these early researchers, Cornelius Adrianus Pekelharing, opined in 1905 that milk had "some unrecognised substance . . . in very small quantities [that] was necessary for normal growth and maintenance."

In 1912, while studying rice, Casimir Funk isolated an organic "factor," which he described as amine (like an amino acid). Because it was vital to life, he combined the two words to coin the term vitamine.

The idea to use the now-familiar lettering system can be traced to Cornelia Kennedy who, in her master's thesis in 1916, was the first "to use 'A' and 'B' to designate the new dietary essentials." Over time, others, including Kennedy's mentor Elmer McCollum (credited with discovering vitamin A), began incorrectly citing McCollum's early work as the original source for the nomenclature.

At first, in addition to their alphabet letters, the vitamines were also identified as either fat- or water- soluble (e.g., "fat-soluble A and water-soluble B"). In 1920, Jack Cecil Drummond suggested dropping the "e" from 'vitamine' to distinguish vitamins from amines and discarding the adjective "soluble":

It is recommended that the somewhat cumbrous nomenclature . . . be dropped, and that the substances be spoken of as Vitamin A, B, C, etc. . . .


Naming Different Vitamins

The five first vitamins discovered, between 1910 and 1920, were named A, B, C, D and E. Interestingly, D had originally been lumped together with A until it was later discovered that "two separate factors were involved."

When a second, similar property to the vitamin originally named B (Thiamine) was discovered in 1920, both were renamed to B1 (Thiamine) and B2 (Riboflavin). The remaining B vitamins were lumped together under the designation "B complex" due to:

Loose similarities in their properties, their distribution in natural sources, and their physiological functions, which overlap considerably . . . .

These Bs are not necessarily designated in chronological order, as B12 (Cobalamins) was discovered in 1926, B5 (Pantothenic acid) and B7 (Biotin) in 1931, B6 (Pyridoxine) in 1934, B3 (Niacin) in 1936 and B9 (Folic acid) in 1941. The missing Bs are substances originally thought to be vitamins, but later reclassified.

Today's vitamins skip from E to K because, like several of the Bs, substances that were once thought to be vitamins were reclassified. For example, vitamin F is today known as the essential fatty acids (omega 3 and 6). Similarly, vitamin G was reclassified as B2 (Riboflavin), and vitamin H is now Biotin.


Bonus Facts

--According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), "vitamin A deficiency (VAD) is the leading cause of preventable blindness in children." In fact, WHO estimates that 250 million young children, and an unknown but substantial number of pregnant women, are vitamin A deficient worldwide.

--Over the past 30 years in the US, forearm fractures in boys have jumped more than 32 per cent, and in girls over 50 per cent, and researchers "suspect a major reason is that children are not getting enough calcium, which is essential for strong bones." According to the recent report, over 60 per cent of teenage boys, and 80 per cent of teenage girls are deficient in calcium.

--Remarkably, despite fortified foods like milk, many in the US (in 2009, 75 per cent of American teenagers and adults) are deficient in vitamin D which is concerning because: "Lack of vitamin D is linked to rickets (soft, weak bones) in children and thinning bones in the elderly, but scientists also believe it may play a role in heart disease, diabetes and cancer…"

--Iron deficiency, often resulting in anaemia, is also a global health problem. The WHO estimates that: "2 billion people – over 30 per cent of the world's population – are anaemic, many due to iron deficiency."

--In a recent survey of 1,000 American adults, it was found that 64 per cent take a vitamin or supplement; of those surveyed, 78 per cent thought vitamins improve performance, either at work or athletically.

Melissa writes for the wildly popular interesting fact website TodayIFoundOut.com. To subscribe to Today I Found Out's "Daily Knowledge" newsletter,click here or like them on Facebook here. You can also check 'em out on YouTube here.