The Controversy of Therapeutic Applications
There are many proponents of Vitamin C who claim this nutrient is effective at curing many ailments including cancer and most notably heart disease. Many proponents claim there is a conspiracy by Big Pharma to keep the efficacy of this treatment secret to protect profits made from medications to treat rather than cure heart disease. Investigating the history, treatment, and current controversy surrounding vitamin C provides troubling insight into the controversy, giving some merit to the conspiracy claims.
Vitamin C is an essential nutrient derived from food sources. The importance of this nutrient predates its discovery in many ways. As early as 1747, the absence of citrus fruits was discovered to cause scurvy (Simon, Reece, & Dickey, 2010). This discovery led to research that would seek to understand this nutrient better. There is still a large controversy today concerning the use and appropriate dosages of vitamin C. Many medical professionals and medical institutions maintain that Vitamin C does not need to be increased beyond the recommended daily allowance (RDA), while many laypersons and professionals contend that current RDA standards are not suited to optimizing health (NIH, 2015). The ability of vitamin C to cure many ailments is controversial despite the fact that there is considerable research showing that this nutrient possesses a large benefit for healing from many diseases and injuries (Roberts , Traber , & Frei, 2009).
History of Vitamin C
Vitamin C’s discovery is attributed to a number of scientists and researchers working on different aspects of nutrient research. In 1907, Axel Holst and Theodor Frølich were the first to identify the absence of vitamin C or what they referred to as the antiscorbutic factor (Norum & Grav, 2002). These physicians were researching the effects of sea travel on mammals and birds when they found that their guinea pig subjects began developing scurvy. Until this time, scurvy was considered a human disease but as a result of this study they were able to link scurvy with an antiscorbutic factor. It was discovered that by withholding citrus and other vegetable foods, guinea pigs would develop scurvy and they could be cured by adding these food groups back into the diet (Roberts , Traber , & Frei, 2009). This discovery predated the idea of vitamins which would not occur until 1912 (Norum & Grav, 2002).
In 1912, American biochemist Casimir Funk, developed the concept of vitamins to refer to non-mineral micronutrients that are essential to health (Norum & Grav, 2002). Funk would relate the anti-scorbutic factor in foods, posited by Holst and Frølich, to the idea of a vitamin. By 1928, this relation would be determined to be “water-soluble C.” Despite not having a visible chemical structure, most scientists agreed that Vitamin C was a real nutrient.
(There is some debate over who discovered the structure so both teams are mentioned.)
Physical, Chemical, and Biological Properties
The actual chemical structure of vitamin C was discovered by two teams of researcher between 1928 and 1932.
Chemical Structure of Vitamin C
A Hungarian research team led by Albert Szent-Györgyi and Joseph L. Svirbely and an American team led by Charles Glen King both are credited for the discovery of the chemical structure of vitamin C (Norum & Grav, 2002). Vitamin C becomes known as L-ascorbic acid, or ascorbate. The chemical makeup of vitamin C is that of a weak acid. Despite the simplistic nature of this nutrient it serves a number of biological functions which are complex in nature. Vitamin C is a cofactor in at least eight known enzyme reactions (Pauling, 2006). Some of these reactions include collagen synthesis, healing, bleeding and clotting (Pauling, 2006) (Simon, Reece, & Dickey, 2010). Vitamin C is also an antioxidant which removes free radicals or damaged cells from the body. Much of the importance of vitamin C is based on its ability to create or assist in enzyme reactions such as facilitating healing (Pauling, 2006) (Simon, Reece, & Dickey, 2010).
Significant Food Sources
Vitamin C is found in a number of food groups but mainly in citrus fruits. Vitamin C is also found in many different vegetables also, such as green and red peppers and sweet potatoes (Zelman, 2010). In order to get the RDA of vitamin C, it is important for people to eat a variety of foods (Zelman, 2010). There are only two ways for humans to obtain their necessary amounts of vitamin C which is either from food or from supplements.
Vitamin C has many health benefits. Research shows that vitamin C has a tremendous impact on the immune system. One of the primary functions of vitamin C is to facilitate collagen growth and repair (Carr & Frei, 1999). Collagen is used in the repair of tissue such as skin and cartilage as well as muscles (Carr & Frei, 1999). Lack of vitamin C has been proven to reduce healing times as well as to allow other diseases to take hold in the body (Carr & Frei, 1999). The therapeutic impact of this vitamin is where much of the controversy occurs.
For a variety of reasons, there is a great deal of controversy and misinformation surrounding the use of vitamin C. The modern medical establishment continues to claim that vitamin C in large dosages is not necessary to good health (NIH, 2015). In opposition to this are many researchers and laypersons who claim that Vitamin C has greater benefit to individuals in higher dosages. To understand this controversy one needs to look at the RDA.
The RDA for adults, above the age of 19 is 90 mg for men and 75 mg for women; despite the fact that almost all animals of equal weight utilize amounts often 10 times the RDA (NIH, 2015). Humans are one of the few animals on the planet that are incapable of producing Vitamin C internally and must obtain it through diet. The cause of this inability to produce vitamin C is a broken gene (Pauling, 2006). The average human being obtains about 55 mg of vitamin C daily from the modern diet while the average mammal produces 5500 mg of vitamin C on a daily basis (Pauling, 2006). There is an obvious logical problem here in that, “It is unlikely that animals would have evolved to make this much vitamin C if they did not need it and use it” (Pauling, 2006). It has been known for some time that animals that are dependent upon dietary Vitamin C will show signs of heart disease when deprived the nutrient (Pauling, 2006). As far back as the 1940’s, research was performed that showed this fact to be true (Carr & Frei, 1999) (Pauling, 2006). In this research, animals that were dietary dependent upon Vitamin C developed heart disease when deprived and when vitamin C was reintroduced into the diet, heart disease symptoms went away.
Even though some physicians had observed forty or fifty years ago that amounts of vitamin C a hundred to a thousand times larger (than the RDA) have value in controlling various diseases, the medical profession and most scientists ignored this evidence (Pauling, 2006).
There is an abundance of research that contradicts the modern medical establishment’s opinion of necessary vitamin C intake. In a 2009 study it was shown that the vitamin E and C both played a significant role in reducing cancer and cardiovascular disease when taken consistently and in larger dosages (Roberts , Traber , & Frei, 2009). In an in depth literature review of many different studies, researchers showed evidence that supported the idea that the current Recommended Daily Allowances for Vitamin C are too low (Carr & Frei, 1999). Despite these findings modern medical institutions continue to assess the therapeutic need and utility of vitamin C based upon low minimum requirements. The primary problem is that most institutions are basing their findings on faulty research and methodologies. For example, the NIH continues to claim that the RDA is adequate for health maintenance while at the same time claiming that the methodologies used to measure Vitamin C consumption and usage are flawed,
Vitamin C status is typically assessed by measuring plasma vitamin C levels. Other measures, such as leukocyte vitamin C concentration, could be more accurate indicators of tissue vitamin C levels, but they are more difficult to assess and the results are not always reliable (NIH, 2015).
As a result of not being able to measure Vitamin C in the body accurately, the RDA for vitamin C is based upon the minimum amounts of Vitamin C necessary to ward off the obvious symptoms of scurvy, not for optimum health (Pauling, 2006). As well, the actual use of Vitamin C in the body is unknown since the testing methods for Vitamin C are flawed. This flawed research does not show the actual benefit of Vitamin C in the human body.
Despite evidence of the therapeutic use of Vitamin C for cardio vascular disease and cancer, established institutions of health such as the NIH continue to present evidence that contradicts these findings.
During the 1970s, studies by Cameron, Campbell, and Pauling suggested that high-dose vitamin C has beneficial effects on quality of life and survival time in patients with terminal cancer. However, some subsequent studies — including a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial by Moertel and colleagues at the Mayo Clinic — did not support these findings (NIH, 2015).
After the research by Cameron, Campbell, and Pauling, subsequent studies were done that contradicted their findings and these studies have been the foundation for the NIH to claim that there is no therapeutic use of vitamin C with cancer. The problem with this finding is that the amount of vitamin C that was administered to cancer patients in the subsequent studies was far lower than what prior researchers utilized. Patients with advanced colorectal cancer were administered 10 grams a day of vitamin C. These patients did not have any better results than those who were administered a placebo. As a result, “The authors…review assessing the effects of vitamin C in patients with advanced cancer concluded that vitamin C confers no significant mortality benefit” (Moertel CG, 1985).
The problem with this conclusion is that the studies had a serious flaw in their design. The use of vitamin C to treat cancer in these studies and in most quoted by the NIH, utilize dosages less than the amounts considered to be therapeutic for the condition. It would stand to reason that if a human being needs 10 grams of vitamin C per day to reach optimum health, then when the person is sick they will probably need more (Pauling, 2006). Many of the studies that the NIH and other health institutions quote sometimes utilize less than a gram a day which completely misses the amounts suggested by proponents of vitamin C. The NIH also admits that there is conflicts in the data having to do with administration of Vitamin C: oral vs intravenous (NIH, 2015).
Vitamin C has a proven track record of being beneficial for health, showing benefit for heart disease, cancer and other illnesses even if taken in diets. The question that remains: why has research in this therapy consistently been conducted using less than optimal levels? This is especially troubling considering that there are not adverse side effects to large dosages of vitamin C other than gas or mild stomach irritation. Despite these evidenced based claims, the government and medical establishments continue to deny the therapeutic potential of this nutrient, which demands more vitamin C research to determine if a low cost supplement can cure or help to cure many diseases.
Carr , C. A., & Frei, B. (1999). Toward a new recommended dietary allowance for vitamin C based on antioxidant and health effects in humans. Am J Clin Nutr, 69(6), 1086–1107.
Moertel CG, F. T. (1985). High-dose vitamin C versus placebo in the treatment of patients with advanced cancer who have had no prior chemotherapy. A randomized double-blind comparison. N Engl J Med, 312, 137–41.
NIH. (2015). National Institute of Health Office of Dietary Supplments. Retrieved from National Institute of Health: http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminC-HealthProfessional/
Norum, K., & Grav, H. (2002). Axel Holst and Theodor Frolich — pioneers in the combat of scurvy. Tidsskr. Nor. Laegeforen, 122(17), 1686–7.
Pauling, L. (2006). How to Live Longer and Feel Better. Orthomolecular Med, 21(3), 175–177.
Roberts , L. J., Traber , M. J., & Frei, B. (2009). Vitamins E and C in the prevention of cardiovascular disease and cancer in men. Free Radic Biol Med, 46(11), 1558.
Simon, E. J., Reece, J. B., & Dickey. (2010). Essential biology with physiology. (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Pearson/Benjamin Cummings.
Zelman, K. M. (2010, January). The Benefits of Vitamin C. Retrieved from WEB MD: http://www.webmd.com/diet/the-benefits-of-vitamin-c
Vincent Triola. Fri, Mar 19, 2021. The Vitamin C Conspiracy Retrieved from https://vincenttriola.com/blogs/ten-years-of-academic-writing/the-vitamin-c-conspiracy