Well-Known Nutrients- A Journey Through Science


Esther Mills, nutritionist and health journalist

Year of publication: 

You know a bit about nutrition, yet you want to discover something extra. You’d like to get your head around a bit of science, to discover how nutrients work in your bodies. After all, maybe there is someone you know who could benefit from such discoveries. Maybe even yourself.....

Vitamin C

 An interestingdecade. Between 1910 and 1920, scientists identified some of the major components in foods and started to study their proper ties. The race was on. These ‘vital amines’ held the key to health, and eminent scientists in Europe and America worked hard to find out more. The first isolation of Vitamin C happened in 1928 by highly admired biochemist Albert Szent- Gyorgyi, from Hungarian paprika (he also isolated it from sweet peppers). Its structure was determined in 1932, and this spearheaded interest in its use for viral conditions such as polio until the 1940s. Interest continued in its action as an antioxidant. This was important because oxidative stress can lead to common conditions such as hear t disease, cancer and inflammatory illnesses. Then, as the secondworldwar intervenes, the science goes quiet. Many suspected that this interesting nutrient could be useful for hear t health and the skin, but with money being shifted towards the war effort, and the discovery of DNA in the 50s, vitamin C took an (understandable) back seat. That was until Linus Pauling, a two-time Nobel Prize Laureate put vitamin C back under the spotlight. His publication Vitamin C, the common Cold and the Flu suggested that vitamin C wasn’t just vital for prevention of deficiency diseases, but could actually be used to treat conditions. It caused a scientific stir. Large intake vitamin C had hit the headlines. Throughout the 80s, scientists looked at use of supplementation for cancer, in the treatment of AIDS, for all kinds of infections, skin conditions and – of course – heart health.


From simple bulb to hear t-health superstar, this pungent antimicrobial is now commonplace on many people’s shelves. An antimicrobial gift of nature, it’s used to help topically with athlete’s foot, hear t health and skin infections. As far back as 1957, it was being researched for helping to protect against cancer and the most potent compound isolated at that time was allicin, cancer research has dominated scientific research, as scientists argue about whether this is the case or not (this was a cause of much debate in the 1980s and early 1990s). There were some great studies on garlic and colorectal cancer carried out in 2006/2007. What is clear is that garlic is known to help hear t health, and this is widely accepted by the scientific community. Its sulphurcontaining compounds, allicin and its breakdown compounds, are known to help favourably alter blood fats helping to maintain a healthy hear t. Its antimicrobial proper ties are known to be effective for bacterial and fungal skin conditions.


 This nutrient became popular in the 1980s, not least because it had a great name. Remember the days of ‘so what are you taking then?’. Gone were the days of ‘vitamin this, vitamin that’, we could now proclaim a cool ‘hey, I’m taking CoQ10’. It made nutrition trendy. And what were people taking it for? Early research looked at conditions such as lack of energy (being an intermediate in the end point of energy production, this makes sense), especially in older people who have lower body stores of CoQ10 than younger people. Athletes also got interested, wanting to improve their performance. CoQ10 studies showed that it could help to maintain a healthy heart (helping reduce energy starvation in heart muscle) and, for good measure, prevent gingivitis. CoQ10 research showed excellent results on improvement of periodontal disease. And these findings are upheld today. Interesting research includes CoQ10’s ability to protect against the heart-harming effects of cancer drugs (anthracyclines) in children, and a lowering of blood pressure in type 2 diabetics with heart ventricle dysfunction. The search goes on.

Carotenoids, and astaxanthin

With an increase in interest in dietary antioxidants, it was only a matter of time before scientists began to delve further into the colour compounds of foods, and in the early 1990s, this happened. Early research on beta carotene and cancer had suddenly turned a bit sour by suggestions that synthetic beta carotene might be harmful to health (based on a study involving lung cancer in smokers). This naturally led to a push to find more natural sources for inclusion in supplements. Enter mixed carotenoids. These naturally-occurring colour compounds found in foods such as peppers, tomatoes, mangoes, grapes, to name just a few from a very large list, became a buzzword in this new ‘rainbow diet’ idea. Supplement labels showed carotenoid names such as alpha carotene, beta carotene, lycopene, lutein and zeaxanthin, each of which had its own accolades when it came to health. Lutein was found to reduce macular degeneration in the eye, lycopene could help reduce incidence of prostate cancer. And now astaxanthin is taking centre stage. Its molecular structure gives it unique biological properties, and it’s highly active, helping to protect cell membranes, improve immune support and reduce oxidative stress in many health conditions. And so we have come full circle. Much in the same way as vitamin C, astaxanthin is proving every bit as exciting, and no doubt, has years of discovery ahead of it. And along the way? Many,many other nutritional discoveries to amaze us. 

NUTRIENTS, Vitamin C, garlic, CoQ10, carotenoids, astaxanthin
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