All living beings require vitamins, essential micronutrients, and these should come through the diet. An extra dose of vitamin has very little nutritional benefit if you are already healthy, but if you are deficient in any vitamin you will require supplements so that your cells and tissues can grow properly. Vitamins facilitate the chemical reactions that produce among other things, skin, bone and muscle. If there is serious deficiency in one or more of these nutrients, you may develop a deficiency disease. Even minor deficiencies may cause permanent damage. Some well known illnesses connected with vitamin deficiencies are beriberi, pellagra, scurvy and rickets.
In 1910 Vitamin B1 (thiamine) was discovered by Japanese scientist Umataro Suzuki and its food source was rice bran. In 1913 Vitamin A (retinol) followed and its food source was considered cod liver oil. Between 1920 and 1948 all the other vitamins were isolated. The last one was Vitamin B 12 (cobalamin) and its source was liver, eggs and any other animal products.
In the 1930s the first commercial yeast-extract vitamin B complex and semi-synthetic vitamin C supplement tablets started being sold. From then to now, the consumption of vitamins and multi-vitamins has become a common practice in many households. Thirteen vitamins are recognized at present and each one has a particular function. Some function as antioxidants, others, especially in the B group, help enzymes to work.
Vitamins are classified as A, B (including B1 Thiamine, B2 riboflavin, B3 Niacin, B5, B6 (Pyridoxin), B7 Biotin, B9, B12 (Cobalamin), C, D, E and K. As supplements become an integral part of our lives, it is important to know where they come from. The B group has other common names which are on the packaging labels: (thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, biotin, vitamin B-6, vitamin B-12 and folate).
Most Indians would be surprised to know how many vitamins are derived from animals and are not vegetarian. Product descriptions are not always honest. While the law directs manufacturers to display the contents of their products, it is not mandatory for them to display the source of these ingredients. Many vitamin supplements are not vegetarian.
Whether or not one opts to continue consuming these vitamins is a personal choice, but you must be aware of their animal content.
Vitamins tablets or capsules usually contain additives that aid in the manufacturing process, or the way the vitamin is digested by the body. These are some of them:
Gelatine is the most commonly used animal ingredient in vitamin supplements. It forms the basis of most capsule shells and is also used in the coating and filling of tablets. Gelatine is derived from boiling hooves, stomach, and other tissue linings, of pigs, cows and goats.
Other components of fillers and lubricants, on the coating of vitamin supplements, are magnesium stearate and caprylic acid. Magnesium stearate is derived from stearic acid, which is a fatty acid found in pigs, chicken, cows, fish, milk and butter. Caprylic acid comes from the milk of goats, cows and sheep.
Many tablets are coated with colours to make them look attractive. Many of these colours are animal based. A commonly used red food dye is made from carmine, which comes from the dead bodies of scale insects similar to beetles.
Lanolin is another animal sourced material used to manufacture vitamin D supplements. It is obtained from wool-bearing animals. (D3 is also made from fish oils. This is dangerous because it may have hidden mercury content). Vegan vitamin D3 supplements, sourced from algae, are a viable alternative. Or, stand in the sun.
Another common ingredient is cod liver oil, which is used as a source of vitamin A and vitamin D. This comes from oils extracted from the liver of cod fish. Vitamin B12 (cobalamin) is often derived from organ meats, especially liver, from lamb, veal, beef, and turkey, fish eggs, clams, mackerel and crab meat. So are Vitamins B 2, B 3, B 5 , B 6, B 7.
Omega-3 supplements usually use products based on fish, fish oil, eggs, meat etc..
Duodenum substances are used in many vitamins to help in the absorption of vital nutrients. These are derived from the digestive tracts of cows and pigs.
Lipase is an ingredient used in digestive enzyme supplements. This comes from the tongues of calves and lambs. Pepsin, which is sometimes included, comes from the stomach lining of pigs. Bone meal is used as a source of calcium in some vitamin supplements. This is basically crushed animal bones.
Calcium supplement tablets have glycerine, which can be extracted from soy or palm but is usually taken from animal tallow (animal fat). Cholecalciferol, used in all vitamin supplements, is extracted from sheep wool.
Do not listen to people who tell you that some vitamins have to be from meat/dairy extracts. There is no vitamin which is exclusively found in non-vegetarian food. Each vitamin has plant based alternatives.
Vegetable cellulose caps are an alternative for gelatine. Stearates used as fillers and lubricants on coating can be derived from palm oil, rather than animals. There are also vegetable sources of caprylic acid which come from coconut or palm oil.
Alternative sources of Vitamin D include yeast extract ergosterol, algae and, of course, exposing skin to sunshine. Cyanocobalamin, which comes from soy, can be used for Vitamin B12supplements. Kiwifruit seed oil, chia seed, fig seed oil, hemp, flax and black raspberry are good sources of Omega-3.Vitamin A can be made from carotene.
There are ways to derive lipase from oilseed and cereal seed for use in digestive enzyme supplements. Crushed animal bones, used for calcium, can be replaced by a number of vegetarian sources, including calcium carbonate, kale, mustard greens, soy, broccoli, leeks, spinach, beets, vegetable compost, plant mulch, dolomite and clay.
Despite these vegetable ingredients being available, the hugely profitable health supplement industry often chooses to use animal based products because they are easily available, from slaughterhouses, and cheap.
Apart from plant alternatives, almost all commercially sold vitamin supplements can also be made from synthetic vitamins. There are no chemical differences between vitamins produced synthetically and those derived from plant or animal sources. Synthetic production is becoming more popular, as, such vitamin tablets are easier to produce and found to be even more cost effective than animal products.
More funds need to be channelled into the R&D of plant alternatives, for use in vitamin supplements. We need to chart a path away from the unnecessary violent methods of producing vitamin supplements. An increase in the consumer demand for plant based supplements will push the industry in a better direction. There are many multivitamin brands that come from animals, or use animals, in their production. Some of these are: In life Multivitamin, Centrum, Herbalife, Healthvit, Muscle Pharm Armour V, Revital, Univita, Amway Nutralite, Opti-Men, Muscle Tech Platinum Multi Vit Supplement among others. You need to write and ask the company.
Vitamin supplements don’t promote health, or prevent disease. They simply treat deficiency. As much as possible, we should rather eat a variety of more whole foods directly. This is more sensible, not to say healthier, than trying to derive micronutrients from these same foods and consuming those in tablets.
(To join the animal welfare movement contact [email protected] , www.peopleforanimalsindia.org)