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Vitamin World: How Humans Became Increasingly Dependent on Capsules

August 15, 2023

Vitamins play a crucial role in human health. If macronutrients are the building blocks in our body, vitamins are partners that ensure our body's complex machinery operates smoothly. The term "vitamin" was first coined in 1912 by a Polish American biochemist, Casimir Funk. They became a major scientific breakthrough in the late 19 th century for their role in health and disease. One might have heard of the now-extinct skin disease Scurvy, which frequently recurred on ships during long voyages. It was discovered in 1928 by Hungarian biochemist Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, that Vitamin C (found in citrus fruits and vegetables) was responsible for curing Scurvy.

During the 20 th century, scientists discovered an enclave of evidence that the human body required minuscule amounts of 13 organic molecules; a deficiency in each caused a different disease.

Around 400 billion years ago, humans were suspected of producing vitamins intrinsically. However, as our species evolved to be surrounded by more vegetation, fruits, sunlight, and freshwater, the abundance of vitamins in the external environment meant that humans no longer needed to produce their own vitamins. Thus, this ability was lost.

Most vitamins you can easily attain from eating food. So, the question begs, why has the synthetic vitamin industry steadily grown over the past few decades-- why do we live in a vitamin world?

The Hot Take on Vitamins

Every vitamin is made by living cells, our own or other species. For example, vitamin D is produced by the skin, and certain plants make vitamin C out of glucose. Bacteria in the gut manufactures vitamins like B12; thousands of bacteria live within our bodies that synthesize vitamins as they eat our food.

The bioavailability of vitamins depends on certain factors. Vitamins are generally separated into fat-soluble or water-soluble. Fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K) require dietary fat for absorption. Water soluble vitamins (C, B complex) can dissolve in water and be immediately absorbed.

But what is truly striking is that our food's vitamin and mineral content has been on the decline … which brings us to the next point.

What's Wrong with Modern Agriculture?

New technologies and farming techniques which preceded the second agricultural revolution allowed farmers to produce output at unprecedented levels. From a societal standpoint, this was a considerable advantage, leading to a significant increase in population growth. At this time, farmers employed techniques like crop rotation which benefited the soil naturally, increasing its fertility and improving its structure.

But sometime after the industrial revolution, farming standards were taken to a whole different ballgame. Farming because heavily industrialized and machine-driven. In 1870, half of the population were farmers. In 2000, only 1% of the population were farmers, thanks to the proliferation of mechanical farming. To control pests, synthetic chemical pesticides and fertilizers were developed and deployed during World War II. Between 1964 and 1976, synthetic and mineral fertilizer applications on crops nearly doubled, while pesticide use on major US crops increased by 143%. The US government heavily incentivized farms to go bigger, resulting in fewer but larger farms. Between 1950 and 1997, the average US farm doubled in size, and more than half of the smaller farmers went out of business.

The downside of these 'fruiting' economies of scale in food production was that the nutritiousness of food kept declining. Mounting amounts of research show that fruits, vegetables, and grains grown have lower protein content, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin, and vitamin C than those grown decades ago. Scientists attribute the root problem to the modern agricultural processes that increase crop yields but disturb soil health . Common culprits include irrigation, fertilization and harvesting methods that disrupt essential interactions between plant and soil fungi, thus reducing the absorption of nutrients in the soil.

Though high-yield farming is more lucrative for farmers, it causes soil to become depleted and compromises the ability of plants to form partnerships with mycorrhizal fungi. Fungi act like root extensions of plants and enhance its ability to "mine" nutrients and water from soil.

The Irony of Abundance

We don't have a food shortage problem; we have a nutrition problem. Though our vegetables and fruit keep getting shiner, more perfect, and rotund, none of those things contribute to our greater, collective health. We're at an inflection point in history where the number of unhealthy people suffering from all kinds of ailments and lifestyle diseases are on steroids. Although we eat more calories than we've ever had, the amount of nutrients we're getting is declining.

Our conventional food system has become an unreliable way to ensure we get enough nutrients from our food. Not when so many human-induced factors are hindering the plants' ability to reach their full nutritional capacity. Similarly, with livestock and fish, most animal feed is now made with corn instead of nutrient-dense plants and algae. The rising carbon dioxide levels in the environment also lower the nutrient content of fruits, vegetables, and grains. Wheat crops exposed to higher-than-average C02 levels generate more carbon-based compounds and develop higher carbohydrate content. They also draw in less water, bringing in few micronutrients in the soil. Findings in a 2020 issue of Scientific Reports showed that the protein content in wheat decreased by 23 percent from 1955 to 2016 , with notable reductions in manganese, iron, zinc, and magnesium.

And so, the tricky reality is this: We have access to an abundance and variety of food, which theoretically should provide all the micronutrients our bodies need. Yet the dependence on synthetic and food-based supplements is astronomical.

Over half of the population reports taking supplementation in the United States. In Canada, 38% of men and 53% of women report taking vitamin/mineral supplements in 2021. The expected annual growth rate for the $130 billion vitamin industry hovers around 6% in the forecast period (2021-2028). Perhaps the obsession with curating more variations of vitamins is addressing the wrong problem.

Vitamins address a definitive problem: We believe we're not getting enough micronutrients from our food. Vitamins address the issue of a deficiency. Symptoms of deficiency range from joint pain and lethargy to brittle nails, poor eyesight, and thinning hair. There is validity in addressing these adverse symptoms, but the solution rests in the larger ecosystem of the human psyche. Our world has become highly efficient, fast-paced, and interconnected through modernization and globalization. The benefits of such are innovation in all sectors of life: agriculture, technology, science, arts, and medicine. The caveat of such is that we're used to getting things the "easy way." Have a health problem? Take a pill. Don't want to cook tonight? Open your food delivery app. Ease of access has become the worst enemy of our health. Now I want to turn your attention to a different scenario. A route of life where humans take ownership over their environment and bodies. A life where vitamins go from "must have" to a "nice to have."

Forward-Backward Way of Farming

In recent times, the word "primal" has spread through health circles like wildfire. Primitive or paleo diets have gone from being book titles to restaurant names. There are two explanations to this undying trend—one being that people are fed up with being overweight and unhealthy. The whole point of eating paleo is to eat what our ancestors ate. It's reversing what we're accustomed to eating; food wrapped in plastic, mostly.

The outcome of following this diet is usually, first, weight loss. The reason is the diet cuts out excess calories from refined carbohydrates and sugar and encourages a diet dense with vegetables, fruit, wild-caught protein sources, and ancient grains.

The second part is partly philosophical. A desire to reconnect with what some might refer to as the 'wisdom' of nature. It's the belief system that what nature has intended for us is inherently good and that humans have hyper-optimized their food systems to the point where it's extremely consequential towards our health. Of course, there are faults to the "everything is good in nature" argument pertaining to disease and epidemics, but we won't go into it in this article.

This backward-forward mentality is an important framework for understanding potential solutions to modern problems.

Singing Frog Farms in Sonoma County, California, has become a research site for good reason. Cabbage grown on this estate contained a whopping 46 percent more vitamin K, 31 percent more vitamin E, 33 percent more vitamin B1, 60 percent more vitamin B3, and 23 percent more vitamin B5 than cabbage from the regularly tilled organic field . The cabbage also contained more calcium, potassium, carotenoids, and phytosterols. What kind of magic went on in this farm? That magic word is called regenerative farming.

"Regenerative agriculture is a system of farming principles and practices that seeks to rehabilitate and enhance the entire ecosystem of the farm by placing a heavy premium on soil health with attention also paid to water management, fertilizer use, and more ("

What's interesting about this project, started by Elizabeth and Paul Kaiser, is that their farm produces six times the state average for crop output per acre , with zero pesticide use and fully organic farming. So how did they do it?

By practicing farming in a way that prioritized soil health. One of the first things they did was "retiring the plow" and giving up tillage. Tillage is a common farming practice of loosening the soil, breaking it up, burying weeds away from the sun, and mixing in fertilizer. The disadvantages of tillage include drying out the earth and exposing beneficial insects to predators. It causes the soil to lose severe volume, stripping it of essential micro- and macro-biological life and nutrients. Healthy soil and plant growth require carbon and nitrogen; much of these elements are volatilized out of the soil with tillage. Carbon and nitrogen combine with oxygen in the atmosphere to form potent greenhouse gases: Carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide. Not only is the soil depleted of essential nutrients, it also further exacerbates the greenhouse gas crisis.

Enter regenerative farming techniques-

- Aerating the soil with "broad forking." Broad fork tool is sunk into the soil and used to gently comb through the compacted beds of soil to allow air to circulate beneath the soil's surface.

- By leaving soil unturned, organic matter starts to build up naturally.

- Prior to human intervention, organic matter in soil ranged from 6-10%. Today, the average is less than 2% organic matter.

- Planting diverse crops allows more organic matter to exude into the soil through plant roots - sugars, complex carbohydrates, and micronutrients.

- Singing Frogs Farm built up organic matter in their soil to over 11% in less than five years.

Conclusion – What does our future look like?

The reality for most of us city dwellers is that we probably require an additional boost from vitamin and mineral supplements. The outdated belief that you can get 100% of what you need from food alone does not consider the fact that ten years from now, our food might contain even less nutritional content than today. However, the Sing Song Farm case study gives us a glimpse of hope into what is possible. Hopefully, with more public awareness and education surrounding regenerative farming, we will see an increase of people focusing less on what diet to choose this year and thinking more about growing their own food or getting their food from a farm that practices regenerative farming.

Ecotrend Ecologics is a premium natural health product distributor in beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia. We proudly distribute what we consider some of the best supplement products in the world, including world-class brands like PROVITA, Nordic Naturals , Sovereign Silver, and Sierrasil.


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