Thiamine mononitrate — also known as vitamin B1 — revealed in the late 1800s by a Dutch scientist named Christiaan Eijkman, was the first vitamin to be discovered. While working in Indonesia, Eijkmann happened to notice that only people who consumed white rice suffered from a disease called beriberi, which involves severe fatigue and cardiovascular complications. However, those who consumed brown rice, which was not stripped of the hull, were immune. This inquiry is what eventually led to the discovery of vitamins, the compounds whose consumption is essential for humans.
Diseases like beriberi, as well as pellagra, were still common in North America after the turn of the century. It was not until the 1930s that public health policies were implemented requiring certain foods to be fortified with vitamins. As a result of these policies, diseases that result from micronutrient deficiencies are relatively unheard of in the modern Western world.
The B vitamins that you find in fortified foods travel a long way before becoming part of your breakfast. The world’s largest vitamin B1 production plant is located in China, near Beijing, and produces three thousand tons annually. Though it is hard to believe, the factory makes vitamin B1 from petrochemicals that are derived from coal tar. The exact process by which vitamin B1 is produced is a heavily guarded secret that the processors refuse to reveal.
Fortification has allowed everything from cereals to pasta to rice to be enriched with vitamin B1. As a result, a mere half-cup of certain cereals can satisfy one’s daily requirement of this vitamin. In addition to fortified foods, there are many naturally occurring sources of vitamin B1, including cornmeal, pork, soybeans, oatmeal, and green peas.
Though B vitamin deficiency is less common in today’s society, individuals are known to become deficient when fasting or on low carbohydrate diets. Because of its essential role in the nervous system, including the synthesis of neurotransmitters and nerve coatings, supplements of vitamin B1 can be used for treating fatigue, irritability, low morale, and depression. In addition, vitamin B1 deficiency among older adults is a primary contributor to senility and other brain disorders associated with old age. Though scientific confirmation is pending, some say that consuming excessive amounts of vitamin B1 can be protective against mosquitoes, since the extra vitamins are excreted through perspiration and repel insects.
Overall, Vitamin B1, plays a central role in human health. Without it in our diet, whether from a fortified or a natural source, we would feel very unhappy.