The study of nutrition and the discovery of vitamins are quite recent on the timeline of human history. In the mid 1700’s, sailors were developing scurvy on their oversea voyages. James Lind, a Scottish man in the British Royal Navy, did a medical trial to see if citrus could prevent scurvy. In 1795, a year after Lind’s death, British Admiralty issued lemons to treat scurvy. In the 1860’s they replaced lemons with limes and British sailors got the nickname “limeys”. Vitamin C was isolated and proven to prevent scurvy in 1932. The other major vitamins were isolated and discovered around this time. Vitamin chemistry is quite complex and beyond the scope of Food is Elementary, so the vitamin lessons present a simplified message that the average person needs to know – the color of food sources and body parts nourished for each vitamin.

A Brief History of Vitamins

Dates Events
1913 Casimir Funk proposed the idea of “vital-amines” in food.  
1926 The first vitamin was isolated in 1926, a B vitamin, Thiamine B1.  
1930’s-1950’s All major vitamins were isolated and synthesized.  
1950’s Deficiency diseases were identified and successfully treated. New science of nutrition focuses on single nutrients and single effects. Launch of the vitamin supplements industry and fortified foods.  


Vitamins – Why do I need them? Where can I get them?



Fat Soluble & Water Soluble Vitamins

Vitamins are either fat soluble or water soluble. Fat soluble vitamins can be stored in fat and can accumulate in the body. Too much of a vitamin stored in the body can be toxic. Vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat soluble.  Vitamins B and C are water soluble vitamins, which means they can dissolve in water. Water soluble vitamins are not stored in the body, whatever they body doesn’t use are usually excreted in the urine. 


Two Unusual Vitamins – A & D 

Vitamin A

There are two different sources for vitamin A:

  • Preformed vitamin A is found in fish, organ meats (such as liver), dairy products, and eggs.
  • Provitamin A carotenoids are turned into vitamin A by your body. They are found in fruits, vegetables, and other plant-based products. The most common provitamin A carotenoid in foods and dietary supplements is beta-carotene. Source: National Institutes of Health Dietary Supplement Office


Vitamin D

Vitamin D is an unusual vitamin because it is made through a chemical reaction by your body when your skin is exposed to the sun. It is important to spend 15 to 30 minutes in the sun without sunscreen every day, unless you sunburn easily.

A few foods naturally contain small amounts of vitamin D, such as mushrooms, fatty fish, egg yolks, beef and fish liver. There are many foods that are fortified with vitamin D, for example milk (both animal- and plant-based), orange juice, and cereal.

Vitamin D is important for strong bones. Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium, a mineral which also helps strengthen bones. Source:




Additional Activities 


Vitamins Food Art Project (Pre-K – Grade 12)


Cafeteria Mural (All ages)

This mural in a school cafeteria in Baltimore, Maryland helps reinforce concepts students learn in the vitamins lesson. This mural was created by students at Hampstead Hill Academy and artist Spoon Popkin. They formed a mural club after school and made still life drawings of a variety of colorful fresh fruits and vegetables. The drawings were projected onto the cafeteria wall, outlined, and painted in with vibrant colors. 



Vitamin Activities (Grades 3 – 5)

Have each child create a list of their favorite fruits and vegetables. Then have them go through and write next to each one which vitamin(s) it contains. They can use this as a reference to remember to eat their vitamins each day.

Create a chart to hang in the classroom that lists vitamins A-E and the foods and colors associated with them. Make a point of showing children that green is the color that appears most often. Let them know this is because leafy greens contain the most vitamins and are the healthiest foods we can eat.

Make up a game using flashcards or pictures of foods, and have children name the vitamins each food contains.


Rainbow Snack Week  (Pre-K – Grade 1)

Assign a color of the rainbow for each day of the week (i.e., Monday-red, Tuesday-orange/yellow, Wednesday-green, Thursday-blue, Friday-purple). The students can bring in a healthy snack corresponding to the day’s color and/or wear that color.

Create a graph on chart paper to track the different colors of whole food snacks the students bring each day. At the end of each week, make a rainbow using only the colors from the chart. Or create tallies next to each color and show students how the numbers change each week, based on their snacks.