Malnutrition and death

In 1769, William Stark, a young British physician, began a series of experiments on diet and nutrition, using himself as the experimental subject. After consuming only bread and water for 31 days, Stark added other foods to his diet one by one, including olive oil, figs, goose meat, and milk. In two months, Stark recorded that his gums were red and swollen, bleeding easily to the touch. Seven months later he died, possibly from scurvy, and likely from the cumulative effects of malnutrition. Stark’s diet was heavy on meat and starch, but devoid of fresh vegetables and citrus fruits.

Twelve years before Stark’s ill-fated experiments, Scottish physician James Lind, having observed the preventive and curative powers of citrus fruits and lemon juice during his years as a naval surgeon, wrote a treatise recommending their mandatory consumption by British sailors. By 1795, Lind’s advocacy had resulted in the issuance of lime juice to all naval vessels and the gradual elimination of scurvy within the entire British fleet.

At the time, no one, including Lind, knew of the existence of ascorbic acid, which would eventually become commonly known as vitamin C.

A key role

Ascorbic acid is an organic compound comprised of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. In its purest form, ascorbic acid is a white solid and is made synthetically from the sugar dextrose. As such, it can be used as a vitamin supplement and as a food preservative.

Vitamin C enables the body to efficiently use carbohydrates, fats, and protein. Because vitamin C acts as an antioxidant — a nutrient that chemically binds and neutralizes the tissue-damaging effects of substances known as free radicals — it is vital to the growth and health of bones, teeth, gums, ligaments, and blood vessels. Vitamin C also plays a key role in the formation of collagen, the body’s major building protein, and is therefore essential to the proper functioning of all internal organs.

Vitamin C is found in various foods, including citrus fruits such as oranges, lemons, and grapefruit; in green vegetables such as spinach, broccoli, and cabbage; and in tomatoes and potatoes. Food processing may degrade or destroy ascorbic acid. Exposure to air, drying, salting or cooking (especially in copper pots), mincing of fresh vegetables or mashing potatoes may also reduce the amount of vitamin C. (Unless foods are stored for a very long time, freezing does not usually cause loss of vitamin C.)

In modern times, access to fresh fruits and vegetables is common, rendering full-blown cases of vitamin C deficiency relatively rare. Cases are normally limited to isolated elderly adults, usually men whose diet is limited to foods lacking in vitamin C, as well as to infants fed reconstituted milk or milk substitutes without a vitamin C or orange juice supplement. Those with certain illnesses, such as AIDS, cancer or tuberculosis, surgical patients, and those exposed to long periods of cold temperatures can also suffer from ascorbic-acid insufficiency.

 

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