What do you think about when you think about vitamins? Abundance at the farmers’ market? Nutrition labels? The Flinstones? Rows of amber glass bottles in our wellness department?

What are Vitamins?

Vitamins are complex organic (carbon-based) nutritive substances found in foods that are essential for regulating the body’s metabolic processes. Vitamins are similar to hormones and enzymes in that they are compounds which interact to help our bodies function. Humans cannot manufacture vitamins, so historically we relied on getting them from food. In the early 1900s scientists discovered the chemical substances they called “vitamins” and man-made equivalents were available after 1930.

While our knowledge of the chemical composition of vitamins and their role in nutrition is relatively recent, the history of vitamin deficiencies goes back centuries. Dietary cures for what we now know as deficiency diseases were discovered long before the importance of vitamins was identified. In Ancient Egypt, night blindness was common and was cured by eating liver (rich in vitamin A). Hippocrates first described scurvy as bleeding gums, hemorrhage and death in the 5th century BC. In 1750, a Scottish ship’s doctor found that the addition of citrus fruit to the sailors’ diets cured them of their scurvy, even though the cause of the disease was unclear (lack of vitamin C). In Asian countries, beriberi disease affected thousands of people whose main dietary staple was polished white rice. Beriberi was thought to be caused by protein deficiency until a Dutch scientist found that feeding chickens unpolished brown rice (rich in B vitamins) helped prevent the disease.

It is ideal to get most nutrients from a well-balanced diet of healthy unprocessed foods. However, many of us do not get all the nutrients we need from our diets. People who have historically been urged to take vitamin supplements include pregnant and breastfeeding women, some vegetarians, people who drink large quantities of alcohol, drug users and the elderly. Today, there is evidence from the Harvard School of Public Health (2007) that taking a daily multi-vitamin supplement makes good sense for most adults. Research indicates that most of the vitamins you get from food are better than those contained in pill form. Food is a complex source of carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals (plant chemicals) which all work together. Taking vitamin supplements cannot substitute for a balanced diet, however along with a good diet, vitamin supplementation is good nutritional insurance.

From A to K

Vitamin A: Vitamin A is necessary for normal eyesight, body tissues, growth and bone formation, and resistance to infection. Rich food sources of vitamin A include yellow and orange vegetables, broccoli, egg yolks and liver.

Vitamin B: The eight B vitamins work together to support and increase metabolism, maintain healthy skin and muscles, promote cell growth and division, help prevent anemia, and reduce symptoms of depression, cardiovascular disease and stress. They help our bodies break down carbohydrates, protein and fat for energy, and each B vitamin plays a specific role. Thiamin (B1) is vital for nerve function. Riboflavin (B2) is important for normal growth and development, the production and regulation of certain hormones, and the formation of red blood cells. Niacin (B3) aids in the breakdown of protein and fats, in the synthesis of fats and certain hormones, and in the formation of red blood cells. Pantothenic Acid (B5) functions in the production of fats, cholesterol, bile, vitamin D, red blood cells, and some hormones and neurotransmitters. Pyridoxine (B6) plays a key role in the processing of amino acids and aids in the formation and maintenance of the nervous system. Biotin (B7) is used by the body to manufacture and break down fats, amino acids, and carbohydrates. Folic Acid (B9) maintains the cells’ genetic code and is essential for the normal growth and maintenance of all cells. One of the breakthroughs that has helped experts understand more about vitamins was the discovery that too little folic acid is connected to birth defects like spina bifida. Pregnant women, women trying to conceive, and breastfeeding women are urged to take “pre-natal” vitamins with increased levels of folic acid. Cobalamin (B12) is necessary for normal production of certain amino acids and fats, and to maintain the nervous system.

Vitamin-B rich food sources (in addition to enriched cereals):

  • B1: yeast, whole grains, legumes, ham, liver, oysters
  • B2: yeast, green veggies, legumes, red meat, fish eggs, cheese
  • B3: legumes, whole grains, green veggies, milk, coffee, red meat, fish
  • B5: whole grains, legumes, most foods
  • B6: whole grains, legumes, carrots, eggs, bananas, peanut butter, chicken, fish
  • B7: green veggies, egg yolks, milk
  • B9: dark greens, legumes, nuts, oranges, apricots, whole wheat, liver, egg yolks
  • B12: some nutritional yeast, marmite, milk, eggs, liver, fish

Vitamin C: Vitamin C is necessary for the formation of collagen, cartilage, muscles and blood vessels, and contributes to the proper maintenance of capillaries, bones and teeth. It is found in citrus fruits, green vegetables, tomatoes, strawberries, melons and potatoes. Vitamin C is an antioxidant which improves the immune system’s performance and promotes the healing of wounds, bone fractures, bruises, hemorrhages and bleeding gums.

Vitamin D: Vitamin D regulates the absorption and use of calcium and phosphorus and aids in the maintenance of a healthy nerve and muscle system. We can obtain vitamin D through self-synthesis via sunlight, fortified milk, egg yolks, liver, and fatty fish like tuna, salmon and sardines.

Vitamin E: Vitamin E is an antioxidant which stabilizes cells against destruction of their membranes and protects tissues that are found throughout the body. Dietary sources of vitamin E are vegetable oils, nuts and seeds, whole grains, avocados, shrimp and cod.

Vitamin K: Vitamin K assists in making six of the 13 proteins required for blood clotting and is found in green vegetables, cauliflower, liver, and egg yolks.

Water soluble vitamins (Bs and C) need regular replacement because they are eliminated in urine. We need a continuous supply of them in our diets. Fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K) are dissolved by lipids, absorbed in the intestinal tract, and stored in the liver and fatty tissues. They are eliminated much more slowly than water-soluble vitamins.

How to choose a multivitamin

Before selecting a vitamin supplement, it is a good idea to check with your health care practitioner or nutritionist to discuss your specific needs. Many of the Co-op’s multivitamin supplements also include essential minerals and other nutrients. Questions to ponder: Are there any vitamins or other ingredients that you want to avoid? What is your budget? Do you prefer tablets, capsules, chewables or liquids? Are you interested in a one-per-day type product or a broader nutritional system with multiple servings per day?

Most brands at Willy Street Co-op offer special formulations to fit a variety of needs: growing children, men, women, vegetarians/vegans, pregnant or lactating women, older adults, and folks with allergies. If it is recommended that you take an increased amount of a single nutrient, we carry a wide selection of single vitamins. Additional information about the specific function of every vitamin and all of our supplements is available at the Co-op.

Willy Street Co-op vitamin deals

July Special Sale Vitamins:

  • Rainbow Light’s Men’s One and Women’s One, 90 tablets, $16.99
  • VegLife’s Vegan One Multiple, Iron Free, 60 tablets, $9.99

Everyday sale prices (ESP = always on sale!):

  • Willy Street Co-op’s Bengal Bites Children’s Chewable Multivitamin, 60 count, $5.29
  • Rainbow Light’s Just Once Multivitamin Iron-Free, 60 tablets, $14.99