Viva!Health’s Veronika Powell explains the benefits of vitamin C…
Vitamin C is so familiar that we don’t pay much attention to it, and yet it’s easy to not get enough of it in your diet, particularly if you rely on processed and convenience foods. Almost anything with vitamin C in it (also known as ascorbic acid) is hailed as a healthy food but is that simply a marketing trick? Let’s find out…
Why do we need it?
Vitamin C is essential for the growth and repair of all the tissues in the human body. It helps make collagen, an important protein that is one of the basic components in the skin, cartilage, tendons, ligaments and blood vessels. It follows that vitamin C is also necessary for wounds to heal properly and for healthy bones and teeth.
Extreme cases of vitamin C deficiency can lead to scurvy – a potentially fatal disease that used to be common among sailors. Its symptoms include gum bleeding and swelling, purple and bleeding skin, muscle and joint pain and tiredness – simply because the body cannot make collagen and maintain all its tissues. Scurvy was eradicated with the introduction of lemons, oranges and lemon juice in the naval diet but, occasionally, it still occurs in people with very poor or limited diets.
Vitamin C is an extremely powerful antioxidant, which helps protect our cells, DNA and organs from free radicals – dangerous metabolism by-products that can cause considerable damage. And, as if that wasn’t enough, vitamin C can also help your body absorb iron from the foods you eat. It’s important to remember that when you’re planning your meals to include sources of vitamin C, so fresh fruit with your cereal, peppers or tomatoes with a bean chilli or casserole and a smoothie with a snack of nuts and seeds.
Natural or supplements?
It’s easy to get sufficient vitamin C from a healthy diet but if you eat mostly processed food, your levels might be low. Smoking also reduces the amount of vitamin C in the body, so smokers need to have higher intakes. It’s always best to get this vitamin from foods rather than supplements. Foods that are rich in the vitamin offer multiple health benefits, not least because they come with other useful nutrients by default. Not only are supplements less effective, they certainly can’t make up for an unhealthy diet. Most experts are clear on this and recommend foods over supplements.
If you take large amounts of vitamin C – more than 1,000mg daily – which is easy to achieve with supplements, it shouldn’t cause any serious problems but can lead to stomach pain, diarrhoea and/or flatulence. And contrary to popular belief, vitamin C supplements don’t help prevent colds or flu but a healthy diet, which includes vitamin C-rich foods, will help to keep your immune system strong.
How and where?
You can get a daily dose of vitamin C either from one orange, one sweet pepper, one kiwi fruit, eight strawberries, a 100g portion of cooked or a 50g portion of raw broccoli, a 130g portion of cooked kale, a 140g portion of cooked spring greens, a 300g portion of cherry tomatoes or a 300g portion of berries. The best sources are: citrus fruit, papaya, pineapple, melon, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, blackcurrants, kiwi, mango, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, spinach, spring greens, tomatoes, peppers and potatoes.
Vitamin C is sensitive to heat and light so it’s best to eat the foods either raw or only lightly cooked. For example if you steam broccoli for 5 minutes, it will retain most of its vitamin C content but if you boil it until mushy, it will lose a considerable amount. That’s why canned fruit and vegetables are not a good vitamin source – they are exposed to high heat during the canning process.
As soon as a fruit or vegetable is picked, its vitamin C content starts to decline. The process can be slowed down by refrigerating and storing the food whole. Fresh fruit and vegetables are always best eaten soon after picking but if you are keeping them in the fridge for a couple of weeks, you’ll be better off with frozen produce. This is especially true for berries that are usually frozen within hours of picking, thus preserving their nutrients far better than when they spend days in transport and on shop shelves.
Do vegans get enough?
If you only eat an apple and a banana a day, that’s not enough to cover your daily needs. Dried fruit isn’t a good source either as most vitamin C is lost in the process. Potatoes are a good source with a large baked potato or a medium portion of boiled potatoes covering half your daily needs. That’s not to say you should eat potatoes every day, though! Aim to eat fruit or vegetables with every meal, including snacks and make green leafy vegetables a staple of your dinners and you’ll be fine.
Viva! is a charity working to promote veganism and to end animal suffering. Veronika Powell is a health campaigner at Viva! specialising in the links between diet and its impact on our health. Veronika is a biologist and qualified teacher. www.viva.org.uk