A look at the development of vitamins and our unabated obsession with them

    (Shutterstock Image:

    (Shutterstock Image:

    What exactly is a vitamin? How many vitamins are out there? And why do we believe vitamins are so good for our health? 

    In her book, “Vitamania: Our Obsessive Quest for Nutritional Perfection,” Catherine Price answers those questions and challenges our society’s beliefs about vitamins and nutrition.

    “Many people hear the word vitamin and they think it’s the entire category of dietary supplements and that’s actually incorrect,” Price said. “There’s only 13 human vitamins, and that is A, D, E, K, C, and the eight B vitamins.”

    The word “vitamin” doesn’t actually have a chemical definition. In 1911 during the early stages of the concept of nutritional deficiency diseases, Polish biochemist Casimir Funk coined the term “vitamines.” It’s a combination of the Latin word “vita,” which means life, and the word “amine,” which is an organic compound. However, the chemicals actually ended up not being amines. To correct the name, terms like “accessory factors” and “food hormones” were tried out. They didn’t stick.

    “Instead, vitamine, they chopped the “e” off eventually to make it not as chemically inaccurate,” Price said. “So, now it’s just kind of this fantastic marketing word that doesn’t really have a definition but we’re never going to give it up.”

    Today, our food system relies heavily on processed and refined products that are made from refined grains. Unfortunately, making food this way destroys its natural vitamins. We then have to add them artificially.

    In her book, Price mentions a 2011 study that found without synthetic vitamins in our fortified foods, the average American wouldn’t be getting their estimated average requirement for vitamins A, D, C, E, B6, and Folate (one of the B vitamins).

    “We’re really dependent on these [synthetic] vitamins in a way I, at least, had never really realized,” she said.

    Vitamins in general are “miraculous,” according to Price. She said if someone with nutritional blindness were given Vitamin A, they’d regain their sight. However, these “magic powers” were taken advantage of by the food industry, she said.

    “Those magic powers were capitalized on by food marketers and later the dietary supplement industry,” Price said. “They expanded those powers to substances beyond vitamins and to make vitamins seem like they can do things beyond what they actually can do.”

    Price thinks about vitamins as a cautionary tale for how we think about nutrition as a whole.

    “What I hope people will take away [from my book] is to better understand how we got to the point where we do think about food in a reductionist way and to give people a tool kit to better evaluate the claims we’re faced with everyday,” she said.

    So the question remains: do we need that multivitamin everyday? If you have a relatively healthy diet, Price says probably not.

    “There are so many synthetic vitamins in our food supply that chances are you’re not deficient in a vitamin,” she said.

    There are a few exceptions, Price warned. Vegans should watch their B12 intake because it’s a vitamin that’s only made in animals. Folic acid is important for women of childbearing age because it helps prevent devastating birth defects. Vitamin D is found in very few foods naturally, and you make most of it in response to sunlight. Winter weather, clothes and sunscreen hinder that process, so supplementing Vitamin D may be worth it.

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