From food to capsule
24th July 2014
Nutritional research during the early and mid-20th century was heavily engaged in establishing which nutrients were essential to life, which had to be ingested via the diet and which could be made in the body. By definition, essential vitamins and minerals of which there are 14 and 15 respectively, and essential amino acids, of which there are 9, need to be ingested via the diet. We now know more about essential fats, and call these essential fatty acids (or EFAs) and they include certain omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
As more and of these essential nutrients were discovered, it became evident that they had the ability to resolve many illnesses. Therefore, diseases like scurvy, beriberi, pellagra and rickets, caused by vitamin C, thiamine (vitamin B1), niacin (vitamin B3) and vitamin D deficiency respectively, were soon largely consigned to the history books.
What we now recognise as the pharmaceutical industry also emerged in Germany, France and Switzerland shortly post-WWII. The huge growth of this industry was driven both by developments in organic chemistry—the chemistry of carbon—as well as recognition that new-to-nature molecules could be patented. These patented molecules, or drugs, had to be different from natural products to be eligible for patents. While this remains the principle business model of today’s Big Pharma, the fact our bodies have not had millennia to adapt to patented drugs means they often disrupt aspects of our physiology—hence the common side effects and poor safety record of pharmaceutical medicine. In fact, the unintended side effects of properly prescribed drugs makes them one of the leading causes of death in modern society.
In its infancy in the pre-WWII period, the embryonic pharmaceutical industry was busy finding ways to produce vitamins, amino acids and other essential nutrients synthetically. The two main perceived advantages were low cost and high stability, which also has a bearing on keeping shelf lives long, reducing distribution costs, increasing profit margins — and generally contributing another vital piece to the highly viable business model of the rapidly growing pharma industry.
With the wind in its sails after global sales of broad spectrum antibiotics like penicillin and pain relievers like aspirin, 1965 saw pharma’s first big shock. It was the thalidomide disaster. This spawned the first attempt to comprehensively regulate drugs and, in Europe, regulation took the form of the its first pharmaceutical directive, Directive 65/65/EEC. Existing EU medicines law is still based on this first Europe-wide medicinal code.