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Weird Science - Pikachu Used 'Roid Rage!: The Chemistry of Vitamins in Pokemon

Posted on August 15, 2012 at 3:30 PM

Guys, I am a serious nerd, and if you've read this blog for any length of time you're very likely aware of this. You should also be aware, my dear and dedicated Muselings (that is the technical term for those Internet users who read my humble little blog, a term invented as of five seconds ago), that two of my great loves on this site are Chemistry and Pokemon. Now, I've discussed Pokemon on this blog before, although that discussion concerned anti-Pokemon and anti-Pokefan sentiments regarding such biased and ignorant reasoning as "there was a symbol that looks sort of like a swastika on the card Koga's Ninja Trick, therefore Pokemon supports Nazi ideals" and "Pokemon are revived when they have fainted, so they must be demons that can be brought back from the dead! Clearly Pokemon supports Satanism - never mind that said belief was only the opinion of a few extremist Evangelical pastors and was never actually supported by any sort of Biblical or Scientific fact". I've made it pretty clear, I think, that I love Pokemon despite its flaws (WTF, you fight little creatures you capture until either it or its opponent faint, and then you get money for it - I'm sorry, that's an awful lot like dog-fighting, and the only reason I find this premise acceptable is because the games and the anime/manga both make it clear that a trainer should raise their Pokemon with love and care outside of battle), and would be one of the first people to defend it should someone object.

Because I'm a dedicated Pokefan, one site that's a constant companion to me is Bulbapedia, a Wiki for everything Pokemon. Recently, I had restarted Pokemon Crystal version and was looking up how best to carefully raise a Level 20 Eevee so it can evolve into Umbreon by quickly raising its Happiness without leveling it up too much and losing some of the precious Dark-Type moves Umbreon can learn. Happiness is basically a measure of how strongly your Pokemon has bonded with you, and some Pokemon only evolve into their next form if they are very happy with you as a trainer. Umbreon and its Psychic-type sibling Espeon are two of the many Pokemon obtained by raising a Pokemon's happiness (in this case Eevee) to or close to its maximum level (Evolution of happy Pokemon begins at a Happiness stat of 220 or so) and then levelling it up (Eevee should take a level at night for Umbreon, and during the day for Espeon). I specifically wanted Umbreon because Dark-Types have some strong moves and high defense, making them absolute tanks in battle. Plus, Umbreon is a badass, seriously, just look at it:

That is the look of a Pokemon that has no fucks to give.

But anyway, a Pokemon's Happiness can be decreased in several ways, such as by letting the Pokemon faint too much, as well as increased, including by just walking around with them in your party. Another way to increase Happiness is by feeding the Pokemon Vitamins, which are battle stat-enhancing items that can be used to permanantly increase things like Attack, Defense, Speed, and Hit Points (HP). The advantage to this type of Happiness-leveling is that not only does the Pokemon like you more, it has better stats in battle, making it a win-win scenario for any trainer looking to obtain a Pokemon that evolves through Happiness. The disadvantage is that all the Vitamins are quite expensive, costing around 9800 Poke-dollars per item, but the benefits are well worth it. Of course, real vitamins don't work this instantly or permanently, but Pokemon takes place in a different universe anyway.

And now you know how I came to find the page for Vitamins on Bulbapedia, and thus how I came to write this article. You see, I discovered an interesting little factoid concerning the Vitamins - in Japan, many of them have the names of real life chemical compounds! I then became intrigued and began to wonder just how many of those compounds really do in real life what the Vitamins in Pokemon do for your Pokemon. So hang onto your Pokeballs and make sure your Jigglypuff is wearing the proper lab gear, because science is about to get weird.

As of the Generation V games (Pokemon Black and White versions along with the upcoming Pokemon Black 2 and White 2 versions), there are nine different Vitamins you can feed a Pokemon. Five of them increase battle stats, one increases HP, two increase Power Points (PP) for various moves, and one increases level. It is the five Battle stat-enhancers - Iron, Calcium, Protein, Zinc, and Carbos - that have real life supplement names. Specifically, in Japan:

  • Iron is called Bromhexine (Raises Defense)
  • Calcium is called Lysozyme (Raises Special Attack)
  • Protein is called Taurine (Raises Attack)
  • Zinc is called Chitosan (Raises Special Defense)
  • Carbos is called Indometacin (Raises Speed)

In addition, the other Vitamins have different names in Japanese Pokemon games. Specifically, in Japan:

  • PP Up is called Point Up, and PP Max is called Point Max (Both raise PP)
  • HP Up is called Max Up (Raises HP)
  • Rare Candy is called Mysterious Candy (Increases the Pokemon's level by 1)

Specifically, I'll be looking at those first five. First up, we'll look at Iron and Protein. Now, it makes sense that Protein would raise the Pokemon's attack, because protein builds muscle and stronger muscles means that your Pokemon can hit harder. It also makes sense that Iron, used by the bloodstream and other areas of the body to promote a healthy circulatory system, would promote defense, since a strong circulatory system would allow a Pokemon to quickly recover from injury that causes bleeding and better absorb oxygen into the bloodstream. So clearly, there is scientific fact involved in how Vitamins work, assuming the Pokeverse has very similar (if not the same) chemistry to our own. If Japan is to be believed, Protein contains the supplement Taurine and Iron contains not an iron supplement, but Bromhexine.

Taurine, or 2-aminoethanesulfonic acid, is an organic acid found in most animal tissue and that many animals need to function. For example, cats need Taurine to keep their eyesight sharp, and if they don't get enough of it they can go blind. Taurine is a component of bile, and it's essential for your eyes, heart, muscles, and brain to fucntion properly. It was first obtained from Ox bile in 1837, and this is where it gets its name (from "taurus", the Greek word for "bull"). It occurs naturally in seafood and meat, although even if you're a carnivore, you're likely only getting around 200 mg per day of the stuff. In terms of Pokemon, which are based upon real animals, Taurine might very well be essential stuff for them, particularly for Bird-Type (like Pidgey), cat-like (such as Meowth), or carnivorous (like Houndoom) Pokemon. It may serve the same function in Pokemon that it does for animals - eye, cardiovascular, and muscle health - and some Pokemon may very well need it to develop properly. There is evidence that insect-eating songbirds, such as sparrows and robins, need it to develop right, and these birds often seek spiders (which are rich in Taurine) to feed their young. And of course, every mammalian creature needs it for their eyes and muscles. Therefore, it makes sense that Taurine would be present as a Pokemon Vitamin - it would help the Pokemon see in battle better, hit harder due to its stronger muscles, and have better endurance because of the increased cardiovascular health.

As for Bromhexine, it is used for respiratory disorders, specifically for the treatment of mucus, and it has antioxidant properties. I can't see how this would benefit a Pokemon's Defensive abilities, but the antioxidant properties may help increase the Pokemon's resistance to diseases caused by free radicals, which would indeed help it be able to take more hits and therefore have a higher defense. Additionally, a Pokemon's body might use the molecule differently from a human being's, making it more beneficial to a Pokemon than a human. I don't know how Bromhexine is used in Japan, but it may be that the programmers of the Pokemon games exaggerated its protective antioxidant effects to legitimize its Defense-increasing properties, and this is probably why the Vitamin was renamed "Iron" in the English versions of the games. Naming the Vitamin Iron makes more sense anyway - iron is vital for the production of the oxygen-carrying hemoglobin, as well as for many cellular and immune system functions. If there is not enough iron in the bloodstream, a person (or Pokemon) can endure poor immune function, fatigue, weakness, and dizziness amongst other symptoms. It therefore makes sense that, by feeding a Pokemon Iron, you are actually raising its resistance not only to disease, but attacks in battle as well.

Now to look at the Special Stat-raising items Zinc and Calcium. Zinc in real life is necessary for quick wound-healing and is beneficial for the immune system, which explains why it was chosen for the name of a Special Defense-raising item. Some also believe it possesses antioxidant properties, which further cements it as beneficial to a Pokemon's defense. This Vitamin in Japan is called Chitosan, which is a polysaccharide (a large sugar) obtained from the shells of crustacians such as shrimp and crabs. Chitosan has been shown by the US Marine Corps to quickly stop bleeding - in fact, when tested on pigs, it allowed a wounded animal to survive otherwise lethal bleeding 100% of the time, since it reduces blood loss by quickly clotting the blood. In fact, Chitosan was recently approved in the United States and Europe as an additive to hospital bandages as well as to products used on the battleground by both the US and UK military - in fact, this compound was used during the war in Iraq and Afghanistan by US and UK soldiers to stop bleeding on the field. Additionally, Chitosan has antibacterial properties and is hypoallergenic despite being derived from shellfish. Someone at Nintendo certainly did their research, because not only do both Chitosan and Zinc support wound-healing and quick blood-clotting, they are both excellent candidates for defense-raising items, and I don't think I need to spell out just how they could benefit a Pokemon that ingested them. In fact, maybe Zinc/Chitosan should have been the item that raises Defense, and Iron/Bromhexine the one that raises Special Defense!

Calcium, on the other hand, supports not just strong bones but also cellular processes and proper nervous system function (it is necessary to transport signals between nerve endings to the brain and back). Therefore, Calcium could increase Attacking power by giving skeletal and nervous system support to a Pokemon - and a Pokemon with strong bones and a healthy nervous system can fight better and hit harder by virtue of having quicker responses and a stronger skeleton to support their muscles. In Japan, this Vitamin is named Lysozyme instead. Lysozymes, which are not one specific chemical compound but a group of them, are named for their lytic, or cell-destroying, properties ("lysozyme" literally means "an enzyme that breaks things apart"), and they are an important chemical produced by healthy immune cells. Lysozymes work by cutting apart bonds between molecules in a bacterial cell's cell wall, which causes the bacterium to lose structural integrity and literally fall apart. This in turn kills it, and the benefits of killing invading bacteria are fairly obvious. Some areas of the body produce a lot more of these compounds than others - for example, the eye produces excessive amounts of lysozymes to kill bacteria that get onto the conjunctiva (the white part of the eye), and when these enzymes fail the result is a bacterial infection called conjunctivitis (commonly called pink eye). Therefore, it seems obvious why you'd want to feed a Pokemon lysozymes - it boosts their immune system, and when you have Pokemon that can poison you or attack you with spores, it makes good sense to ensure a Pokemon isn't too terribly damaged by these attacks. Plus, by keeping bacteria out of your Pokemon, you're ensuring it doesn't become sick and therefore have a harder time battling. Once again, someone at Nintendo clearly did their Chemistry homework.

Finally, we'll look at Carbos, the Speed-increasing Vitamin. The word "Carbos", as if I even really have to say it, is a shortening of the word "Carbohydrates", which provide energy and are the most abundant source of fuel in most animals' diets. In fact, very complex carbohydrates can make you feel very full for a long time, such as those present in wheat breads and oatmeal. Smaller carbs, such as those found in white breads and sugary foods, burn quickly, providing a very fast burst of energy which wears off too soon. Both types of carbs are processed by the body for energy, which is why many athletes eat meals high in carbs before a big game. Therefore, it seems pretty obvious why Carbos would promote a Pokemon's speed - if a Pokemon eats a lot of carbohydrates, they'll have more energy in battle and be able to move and react quicker. After a while, their body (like with humans) would get used to burning a lot of energy, thus they would need more carbohydrates to stay alert and active because Pokemon lead such a high-activity lifestyle. Of course, some Pokemon, like the speedy Zubat, might burn carbs more efficiently than others, like Slowpoke. Therefore, a faster Pokemon would need more carbs in their diet than a slower one, because a faster Pokemon would burn those carbs much faster.

In Japan, the Vitamin Carbos is called Indometacin. Indometacin is an NSAID (Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug) that is used to treat pain, stiffness, and swelling as well as Fever. It can poison in very high doses, so extreme care must be used to ensure the proper dose is given. Because of its potency, it is only given in cases of severe or chronic pain, such as with rheumatoid arthritis or tendinitis. Pain, stiffness, and swelling are all symptoms of injury that a Pokemon could endure in battle, and severe pain and stiffness could indeed reduce Speed, so it seems clear why Indometacin would be a good supplement for a Pokemon - by increasing pain resistance, such as that caused by constant battles, a Pokemon can easily become speedier - just ask any arthritis-sufferer how much more quickly they could move were they not in constant pain. In fact it was probably this pain-killing property of Indometacin that caused the English version of the games to change the Vitamin's name to Carbos instead, which still preserved the Speed-enhancing aspect without the implication that Pokemon can develop chronic pain and stiffness from heavy battle. Even if the idea of it happening is more realistic, Pokemon arthritis is a pretty heavy-handed concept for a kid to grasp.

So, that explains those five Vitamins, but how about the HP, PP, and level-raising Vitamins? Here's where we get into speculation about what compounds these Vitamins actually are, since nobody at Nintendo seems to have said anything about them. I'll assume that they would be based on real chemical compounds, going off of the assumption that the Pokeverse's chemistry is essentially the same as ours.

I'll start with HP Up first. HP, being a measure of the amount of hits a Pokemon can take before fainting, is essentially a measure of that Pokemon's endurance - the higher the HP, the more damage a Pokemon can endure before being unable to take any more and collapsing in exhaustion and pain. Therefore, HP Up probably contains a mixture of, or a compound that, can increase endurance. Caffeine, one of the most obvious choices, has been proven to help because it aids muscle contraction and boosts aerobic endurance - a cup of coffee before exercise has been shown to increase how long and how far an athlete can go. Creatine, which is naturally found in fish and lean meats, is another good candidate, since it improves both anaerobic and aerobic endurance. Beta Alanine, another endurance-enhancer, is found in meats and can help boost muscle performance, particularly in high-intensity activities. Of those three, it seems most likely that HP Up is probably Creatine, but could include some Beta Alanine in it as well.

As for the PP-increasing Vitamins, it seems likely that those contain Caffeine, since PP is just a measure of how much energy a Pokemon has for a given move. After all, what better to increase your energy than Caffeine? If this is the case, then both of the PP enhancers have different amounts of Caffiene per pill, since one only increases a movie's PP while the other maxes it out. So using a PP Up is probably like giving your Pikachu a cup of coffee, while using a PP Max is like giving him a cup of espresso. Might not want to give him too much though - the last thing we need is an overly hyper Electric-type Pokemon getting so excited that he starts Volt Tackling around the living room, zapping every living person within a five-foot radius.

Finally, that prized of all items, the Rare Candy. Because this item raises a Pokemon's level, it could be one of several things, or a mixture. We do know that Rare Candies come from Berry Juice, which comes from Berries being held by a long time by the Pokemon Shuckle. Obviously, there is something in the Rare Candy, then, that is also present in the health-giving item Berry (this was before Generation III introduced the different types of berries; according to Bulbapedia, Shuckles generally tend to hold Oran Berries after Gen III, which restores 10 HP if a Pokemon eats it). A possible explanation for why Oran Berry Juice, which then crystalizes and becomes a Rare Candy, is that Oran Berries are high in vitamin C like their citrus counterparts in the real world. Vitamin C is supposed to strengthen immune system responses. Some citrus fruits, such as mandarin oranges, are also higher in certain sugars than others, and since the Oran Berry is likely based on this Asian-native fruit, it is likely that the reason Pokemon gain a level and thus get stronger from eating a Rare Candy is due to the extra sugar and Vitamin C in the Oran Berry, or at least is based on that idea. This also explains why it raises a Pokemon's Happiness - not only is it becoming stronger and growing up, it's also eating something that tastes sweet. And as we all know, it's impossible not to like someone who gives you candy, provided they aren't some skeevy fellow in a Pedo-van.

However, there are alternative explanations for the Rare Candy's abilities. On one hand, a Rare Candy could contain a mixture of all the other Vitamins, effectively making it a Pokemon multi-vitamin which could promote the Pokemon's quicker growth. However, this seems unlikely because Rare Candies only increase a Pokemon's level, not its battle stats. On the other, much more likely hand, a Rare Candy could contain Pokemon growth hormones - basically, Pokemon steroids. The only thing that would make giving a Pokemon an extra level in this manner legal, then, would be if it were such a small amount of the hormone that it only raised the level by one. If this weren't the case, then it would mean a Pokemon could become ridiculously strong, ridiculously fast, with the added downside of being ultimately weaker than a normally leveled Pokemon due to the effects of chronic steroid use. This is supported by the fact that only the Pokemon's level is increased, and by the fact that a Rare Candy can revive a fainted Pokemon due to the increased HP it takes. In fact, there may even be an illegal underground Pokemon steroid trade, which certainly explains why big cities like Celadon and Goldenrod need their own police departments. I smell a Pokemon urban legend in the making, guys... Quickly, reader! Find someone who hails from 4Chan or SomethingAwful and get them to make a Copypasta out of this! It must be done FOAR GREAT JUSTICE.

Well, that's it for Weird Science today. Make sure you level up your Pokemon before that next Gym Leader battle. As for me, I've got an Eevee to entertain, so I'll catch you guys later (but not in a Pokeball though seriously why would you even think that?).

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