March 3, 2015 1 Comment
Couldn’t help but steal the pitch-perfect title from the Atlantic iinterview with the author of a new book on our false belief on how vitamin supplements can save us. My mom was a huge believer in all things vitamin and supplement-related. Among other things, I took megadoses of Vitamin C when I got colds (surely did no good). That said, given my horrible diet when I was younger, I might have actually gotten scurvy without Vitamin C supplements (and I suspect the same would be true for some of my kids). Anyway, the occasional case of scurvy avoided for a really picky eater, it is quite clear that our culture has put far too much faith into vitamin supplements:
The third idea wasn’t new, and wasn’t born from the conference so much as strengthened by it: the notion that vitamins were the key not only to health, but to a state of health-plus, with the ability to boost bodies past sick, past normal, and into something even better. In recent years, researchers have debunked, over and over, the idea that vitamin supplements confer any measureable benefit at all—but still, around half of Americans take them regularly. Together with other dietary supplements, they enjoy a reputation for nutritional power that stretches far beyond their true capabilities…
I was especially intrigued by this part:
Catherine Price: There’s actually only 13 human vitamins: A, D, E, K, C, and the eight B vitamins. But when we use the word vitamin in our everyday speech, we tend to lump in all the other dietary supplements that you could take—things like fish oil or all the herbals and botanicals that you can find if you go into the drugstore or GNC.
In terms of the chemical definition of a vitamin, there actually isn’t one. [Most of those 13] were discovered around the same time, and the word was coined before any of them had been isolated, and it just ended up being such a great word that it stuck around, even after scientists found out that the vitamins actually weren’t all chemically in the same family. But in general, it’s a substance you need in an extremely small amount, usually from your diet, that prevents a specific deficiency.
Romm: If they aren’t all chemically united, what is it that groups vitamins together?
Price: A lot of it is the history. They were discovered because of deficiency diseases—things like scurvy, which is a deficiency of vitamin C, or rickets with D. Or beriberi, which none of us know about now, which was horrible—that’s vitamin B1. And pellagra, which is niacin [B3]. So they were discovered through this process of recognizing the idea of a deficiency disease. And that was really revolutionary, because there was this idea that you could get sick from something you didn’t have, as opposed to a germ. So scientists started hypothesizing in the early 1900s that there was a group of chemical compounds in food that prevented these diseases. In 1911, this Polish biochemist, Casimir Funk, suggested that they be called vitamins. So that’s kind of how the concept became established and the word was created, and why they started to get lumped together. It was only after that point that they actually discovered what the substances were…
Romm: Were vitamins marketed more for their health benefits, or in terms of what would happen if people didn’t get enough of them?
Price: Both, actually. On the one hand, you had advertisers warning you of what would happen if you were deficient. Some of the early researchers were writing for the popular press, and they would write these terrifying columns saying how your teeth would fall out if you didn’t have enough vitamin C—which is true, but most Americans don’t have scurvy. That’s extreme deficiency. So a lot of it was this fear-mongering, and I thought that was fascinating because we still see it today all the time. And then there was this flipside, where the idea of optimization started to take hold—if vitamins were necessary to prevent a deficiency in a small amount, then if you had more of them, you’d be like a superhero. So yeah, they were doing both. Vitamins, more than any other dietary chemical, really established that two-sided relationship, where we’re driven both by fear and by the hope that we’ll become superhuman, that we can optimize ourselves if we just eat the right things.
Based on the research and my (now) healthy diet, I finally stopped taking vitamins a few years ago. As for my kids, I am definitely not expecting any great health benefits, but until their diets improve, I’m playing it safe to prevent any deficiencies.
Also, not in here, my very favorite piece of vitamin lore I have heard… Sugar producers lobbied for vitamins to be added to breakfast cereal because that requires more sugar to mask the taste of the vitamins.