The Vitamin Code MultiVitamin Story
Albert Szent-Gyorgyi was not your typical science
professor. Intense and driven in his lab work, he was also likely to be
seen riding his bike across campus or playing soccer with students. At
the time in conservative Hungary, Szent-Gyorgyi must have been the very
image of free-wheeling.
While he may have been fun-loving, Szent-Gyorgyi was
also highly respected. His down-to-earth lecturing style, his status as
an M.D., and his work at Cambridge University made him a local hero. It
was his work with vitamin C however that would one day earn him the
At the time there were world-wide efforts from
scientists to “discover” vitamins. Scientists knew that certain foods
were healing in nature. Seafarers with scurvy were cured in a week when
administered citrus fruits. Since that very discovery the race was on to
find out exactly what component of citrus fruits was responsible.
As with many such races, controversy would soon ensue.
Szent-Gyorgyi and a colleague were able to isolate what they called
“hexuronic acid” from citrus juices. When this acid was added to food
and tested on guinea pigs it was shown to help ones who had scurvy-like
symptoms. Szent-Gyorgyi believed that he had discovered the long sought
after vitamin C. He and a colleague wrote of the discovery to another
scientist, mentioning the fact that they hoped to publish their findings
soon. You can imagine his surprise when that same scientist beat him to
the punch. His study lauded the discovery of vitamin C, which happened
to be the exact same “hexuronic acid” that Szent-Gyorgyi was first to
Not withstanding the argument over who got their
first, there was a bigger problem. The “hexuronic acid” that
Szent-Gyorgyi was able to isolate had two major issues. It was very hard
to isolate from citrus juice, and the sugars present in those juices
made it very hard to purify. Szent-Gyorgyi spent a lot of time trying to
find a better food source of vitamin C. His answer came one night at the
dinner table when his wife served the meal with some fresh red paprika.
As he wrote in his autobiography, “I did not feel like
eating it [the paprika], so I thought of a way out. Suddenly it occurred
to me that this is the one plant I had never tested. I took it to the
laboratory . . . [and by] about midnight I knew that it was a treasure
trove full of vitamin C.”
With this finding he was able to isolate as much
vitamin C as he wanted, and this form was much more pure than “hexuronic
acid”. Szent-Gyorgyi penned this new pure form of vitamin C “ascorbic
acid” (taken from the Latin medical term for scurvy, ascorbutus). Today
ascorbic acid is still the name for purified vitamin C.
For his efforts in discovering vitamin C and then
applying it in a medical setting, Szent-Gyorgyi won the Nobel Prize in
1937. He was featured in Time magazine and his $40,000 award (worth
approximately $585,000 today) made him famous and wealthy.
Lost in all this was another discovery that had far
broader implications. In order to isolate ascorbic acid from the
paprika, you needed to go through several steps of purification. Ever
the meticulous scientist, Szent-Gyorgyi tested each one of these stages
on patients with conditions related to vitamin C deficiency. What he
found startled him.
He had expected that as the vitamin C became purer and
purer that patients would respond faster, with 100% ascorbic acid
equaling the fastest response time. This was not the case. In fact, the
100% pure ascorbic acid had a minimal effect. It was at a purification
stage between raw food and 100% that had the greatest effect.
Szent-Gyorgyi surmised that the in-between stage
contained other elements that aided vitamin C’s effects. He believed
that these elements were “flavones”. Eventually they would be proven to
be bioflavonoids and isoflavonoids, key “co-factors” that were important
to vitamin C.
Not that the world took notice. In fact these findings
were virtually ignored. Instead an entire industry was born around the
notion that purely isolated vitamins were more beneficial for you.
Perhaps it was because the purified vitamin C proved easy to
manufacture. Perhaps it was because it could be manufactured cheaper.
More importantly why would Szent-Gyorgyi stand for this?
Left to continue his studies unabated he may not have.
However war clouds were gathering over Europe. Szent-Gyorgyi turned his
attentions to the Hungarian resistance movement, helping Jewish
scientists escape death camps and ferrying messages to the British
Secret Service. His efforts attracted the attention of one Adolf Hitler
who demanded he be handed over. Knowing that would mean death,
Szent-Gyorgyi and his wife fled. Until the war’s end they hid near the
Soviet border where the Gestapo dared not go. Eventually after the war,
some ten years after he won the Nobel Prize, he came to the United
States. By that time he had turned his attention elsewhere (he would
eventually win the Lasker Award for medical research).
What he could not know was the impression he had once
made on a young man attending one of his lectures. Endre “Andy” Szalay
considered Szent-Gyorgyi a hero, and using his principles as a guide he
would one day break the Vitamin Code.
Many of us have moments in our lives that are
hard-wired into our memory banks, moments that help drive us toward a
goal in life. For Andy Szalay the moments were a combination lectures
from Albert Szent-Gyorgyi. That it would take decades to reach his goal
is a testament to both the power of those moments and the dedication
that Andy Szalay showed from an early age.
Growing up Andy did not want to be a scientist. He
wanted to be a competitive swimmer, and the early part of his life was
dedicated toward that goal. He would swim all summer, and during the
school year he would train from 6:00 to 8:00 am, go to school, and then
train from 6:00 to 8:00 pm.
When his dreams of representing Hungary in
international competition never materialized, Andy dedicated himself to
his work at the University of Szeged, the same place where Albert
Szent-Gyorgyi researched and taught. While the two never met or spoke,
Szent-Gyorgyi’s lectures had a profound effect on Andy. To this day he
carries around a tattered autobiography of his hero, worn from the
constant attention it has received.
It would take decades for Andy to apply what he
learned in those lectures and from that book, mainly due to the fact
that life was getting in the way. After graduating from the University
of Szeged in 1943 he became a pharmacist. Of course 1943 in Hungary was
not the best place to be. With Germans overtaking the country and the
Russians fighting back, many a night was spent huddled in basements as
bombs flew overhead. After the war the communist regime of Russia that
settled in wasn’t much better. In 1956, fearing for his life, Andy
escaped (literally through a hole in a fence) and eventually ended up in
the United States.
Andy spent the next two decades slowly working his way
up the corporate ladder at three different botanical/pharmaceutical
companies. In true “American Dream” fashion Andy started at the bottom
and worked his way into a Vice Presidency at the third company. While
his ideas, discipline and hard work earned him the respect of his
bosses, they could never see their way to letting him put into practice
an idea that had been turning around in his head since his days of
listening to Szent-Gyorgyi.
So it was after 15 years of service at the third
company that Andy would make a decision that most of us would never have
the guts to do. At the age of 57 Andy quit his job and started his own
company. Grow Company, Inc., founded in 1977 was Andy’s first big step
toward breaking the Vitamin Code.
The Simple Difficult Idea
So what was Andy’s idea, the one that he tried to
share with three companies previously? It was very simple and based upon
the findings of Albert Szent-Gyorgyi.
You will remember that during the isolation process of
vitamin C, Szent-Gyorgyi found an “intermediate” stage where the vitamin
C was incredibly effective, more effective than the 100% isolated
vitamin C. Andy’s premise was simple. If he could find a way to
reverse-engineer the process, and bring a 100% isolated vitamin C back
to the “intermediate” stage, he would have a more effective form of
Andy had a pretty unique idea of how to do this. For
inspiration all he need do was look out his window. Andy knew from his
studies that when a plant takes root, its roots reach into the soil and
pull out the inorganic salts. When the plant is exposed to sunlight the
leaves and fruit of that plant produce vitamins and minerals through its
metabolic process. The vitamins and minerals were literally grown. (Ok,
so this is a very watered down explanation of the process, but you get
In sum, this is what Andy’s theory looked like. Albert
Szent-Gyorgyi took food and isolated the vitamins from that food to
their purest form, realizing that the vitamin was at its most potent at
an “intermediate” step along the way. Andy wanted to mimic the process
in nature, taking the isolated vitamin and growing it back to the
While the theory was simple, the application was not.
The first thing Andy needed was a growth medium, a plant or food source.
After several trials he settled on using baker’s yeast, the same type of
yeast that is available in every grocery store. Baker’s yeast is a
single-celled organism that grows hydroponically (in water). It grabs
its nutrients from the water and as it grows it divides, from one cell
to two, two to four, four to eight and so forth.
Baker’s yeast also yielded Andy another benefit, and
one that proved that he was on the right track. Andy found that when
certain proteins and peptides were introduced to growing yeast, those
proteins and peptides were able to penetrate the cell walls and embed in
the yeast. By contrast, when he introduced a vitamin or mineral into the
growing yeast, it was not always able to penetrate the cell wall. No
penetration meant that the new yeast that was created did not have that
vitamin or mineral embedded in it.
Andy’s “Eureka Moment” came when he decided to first
embed a vitamin or mineral with a protein or peptide and then introduce
it to the propagating yeast. What followed was a testament to the
discipline and tenacity that Andy first displayed in the swimming pool.
What Andy would come to learn was that each vitamin and mineral had its
own specific protein or peptide that allowed the vitamin or mineral to
pass through the yeast cell wall and embed within the yeast. There was
no “universal” protein or peptide that worked for every vitamin, for
every mineral. Undaunted (ok, maybe a little daunted), Andy set about
trying to figure out the protein code for a single mineral, in this case
selenium. Since Andy did not know which specific protein or peptide
would allow selenium to pass through the yeast cell wall, he went about
finding out the old fashioned way, through trial and error. Andy would
set up his sterile lab equipment (in this case a fish aquarium!), embed
a protein or peptide into the selenium and wait for the results. When it
didn’t work the fish tank was left a mess. He would clean it and start
And when he finally broke the code, even though he was
expecting the results, he was still awed. As he predicted, the peptide
that he used allowed the selenium through the yeast cell wall and
embedded in the yeast. The result was the creation of yeast where the
enhanced level of selenium formed an integral part of the yeast.
Andy had succeeded in taking an inorganic isolated
mineral (selenium), embedding it in a food source (yeast). He had
reached the “intermediate” phase that Albert Szent-Gyorgyi had
Andy then spent years determining every protein or
peptide that was necessary to grow all of the major vitamins and
minerals. Literally thousands of tests were done, each failure needing
to be cleaned up only to start again. In the end though, Andy had done
something that would have made his hero proud. He had perfected food
created nutrients. He had broken the Vitamin Code.
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