October 23, 2017

Our bodies need vitamin D to absorb calcium, something that is key for normal bone development. In the past, this was no small matter. Rickets was an enormously common issue for children which is a disease that softens the bone and makes them brittle. It was classified as a specific medical condition in 1645 in England. At the time, rickets was wide spread. But how does rickets relate to the history of Vitamin D?

Rickets and the need for Vitamin D in the USA

Rickets was formerly a major public health problem among the US population; In Colorado, where ultraviolet rays are about 20% stronger than at sea level, almost two-thirds of children had mild rickets in the 1920s. An increase in the proportion of animal/fish protein in the American diet coupled with increased consumption of fortified milk fortified coincided with a dramatic decline in the number of rickets cases.

Discovery of D2 and D3

In 1922, Elmer McCollum tested cod liver oil in which the vitamin A was eliminated. The modified oil still cured rickets in dogs, so it was assumed something else at play distinct from vitamin A. He called it vitamin D because it was the fourth vitamin to be isolated not realizing that vitamin D wasn't really a vitamin at all.
But much of the interesting work with vitamin D can be attributed to the American physician Harry Steenbock who demonstrated that treatment by ultraviolet light increased the vitamin D content of some foods and organic drinks. Steenbock's technique was used with some food, but most memorably for the fortification of milk. His treatment of milk converted inactive ergo sterol into physiologically active vitamin D2. 3 years later, in 1932, vitamin D2 was purified and isolated. By 1936, D3 was discovered to be a unique element. Soon after isolating the elements and determining the bio structure, synthesis was achieved and the supplement was made available.

Milk and the vitamin D Story

The introduction of vitamin D–fortified milk into the USA took a similar course to that of most new pharmaceuticals and other innovations at the turn of century. Although the dairy industry paid some attention to the marketing of fortified milk, the medical community was responsible for much of the dissemination of information on the benefits of fortified milk with vitamin D to the public. At one point, it even went so far that milk was considered to be classified as a medicine instead of a drink. By the 1930s, the American Medical Association Committee on Foods issued a series of reports announcing the sale of vitamin D fortified milk which greatly increased its production and demand.

The 1980's to present

In 1980, the FDA finalized its fortification policy that provided a set of guidelines for fortify foods. Although the policy was not intended for widespread food fortification, the trend moved in that direction. The U.S. food industry began to introduce fortified soft drinks, juices, and cereals. The food industry's infatuation with fortified foods specifically began in 1984 when a National Institutes of Health expert panel issued a statement listing calcium as the mainstays of prevention and management of osteoporosis. The Dairy Board had launched a campaign credited with turning around a slump in dairy product consumption. By 1986, the soft drink Tab was able to increase sales of as 185% after fortifying the beverage specifically with calcium.

From a historical perspective, this situation was unique. The eagerness with which the food industry, once reluctant to mention nutrition as a selling point, unilaterally introduced fortified foods and marketed the heck out of it. A whopping 66% of shoppers in 1999 tried to increase their use of fortified foods to maintain good health. What is more, after all these years, we are so comfortable with the concept of fortified food that we are willing to create, sell, and buy it without the participation from the public sector.
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