Now and then a book comes along that educates and entertains at the same time. When an author manages this with the beaten-to-death topic of nutrition, it’s doubly impressive. Catherine Price’s forthcoming (Feb 24) “Vitamania: Our Obsessive Quest for Nutritional Perfection,” is the surprisingly fascinating story of vitamins—their discovery, their functions in our bodies, and how they’ve been co-opted by an industry that has fostered a cultural infatuation with what we include, or fail to include, in our diets.
Vitamins are necessary to prevent a host of horrifying illnesses, like beriberi (thiamin deficiency—swollen limbs, lost appetite, suffocating, convulsive death), scurvy (vitamin C deficiency—lethargy, achy joints, bruising, rotting gums, eventual death by internal hemorrhaging), and pellagra (niacin deficiency—skin discoloration and scaling, disfiguration, mental stupor, vertigo, emaciation, and violent diarrhea). It is alarming to think that the only thing standing between us and these miseries is an adequate amount of only thirteen chemicals in our diets.
They’re also incredibly versatile molecules. Consider vitamin B6 (pyridoxine): It plays important roles in growth, cognitive development, depression, immune function, the production of antibodies and hemoglobin, nerve maintenance, and the breakdown of protein. The other vitamins similarly multitask, to varying degrees.
Vitamin deficiencies were once terrifying mysteries. Price effectively captures the drama of these science detective stories, and helps readers understand how radical the idea of diet-related disease once was. We might chuckle at the earnest naiveté of early nutrition and food researchers, but Price is also quick to remind us how little we know about human nutrition today. Truly, despite all we’ve learned about nutrition, we’re just scratching the surface.
Even so, there is one conclusion in which we can be pretty confident: “The healthiest and safest doses of vitamins are the ones found naturally in food.” This is the crux of “Vitamania.” Sure, we’re still learning about the specific physiological functions many of the vitamins play in our bodies; but study after study, decades worth of epidemiological data, have shown that optimal health comes from a varied, nutrient rich diet consisting of mostly whole foods—not pills, powders or extracts.
Sadly, the average American diet is not varied, not nutrient rich, and does not consist of mostly whole foods. The fortification and enrichment of processed foods is a regrettably important public health necessity (enrichment refers to restoring micronutrients that were lost during processing, like adding thiamin to white flour; fortification refers to introducing micronutrients that were never there in the first place, like adding vitamin D to milk). Price cites a 2011 report that concluded that without synthetic vitamins added to our foods, most Americans would experience health-threatening deficiencies.
“Vitamins are interesting in that they are miraculous,” Price told me over the phone. “The tiniest amount of vitamin A can restore the sight of a deficient patient. Because of that miraculous power we think of them as always being positive--if a small amount is so amazing, a larger amount must be better.”
Enter the supplement industry.
Not only does it wrongly promote the idea that more is better, but the supplement industry also assigns a smorgasbord of additional powers to vitamins that they don’t possess. Price points out in “Vitamania” that “many people have become convinced that superdoses of vitamins can do things like boost our energy and our moods, even prevent autism and treat cancer.” But due to lobbying from the supplement industry, none of these claims have to be proven. In fact, because of the ironically named Dietary Health and Education Act of 1994, the FDA is effectively forbidden to compel supplement makers to test their products for safety or efficacy. Basically the only thing required of say, an alfalfa sprout concentrate capsule, is that it contain alfalfa sprouts.
“There’s an idea out there that natural is better, that something associated with nature is innocuous and safe, which is not true in so many ways.” Price told me. “What surprises me is that vitamins and supplements have this ‘natural,’ and ‘crunchy,’ reputation, but you have a massive industry that’s reaping billions of dollars in profit from breaching our trust. If anything, you’d think that the folks who most love ‘natural’ supplements would be up in arms about ‘Big Vitamin,’ as much as they are about ‘Big Pharma,’ which is actually much better regulated,” she said.
Despite recent scrutiny, the supplement industry is likely here to stay, and so too, our desire for magic bullets. To illustrate: Price told me she’s given a number of interviews to health magazines in anticipation of “Vitamania’s” release. “We’ll have just finished these conversations about the lack of science to support various supplements, and then the reporter will ask me: ‘Ok, but which supplement should I take?’”
I‘m happy to say I refrained from asking her that question.
“We need [vitamins], but we shouldn’t credit them with miracles beyond the context of their naturally occurring amounts.” Price said. “I think our relationship with vitamins helps represent the way we think about nutrition. I hope this book gives consumers tools to think critically about their diet, to be smarter about how they interpret information and claims that surround us every day.”
I hope so too. I get sent a lot of books about food. I usually don’t write about them. Upon opening “Vitamania” I was pleased to find myself wanting to keep reading. It’s measured, funny, and fascinating. The only thing that Catherine Price is selling here is good reporting, engaging storytelling, and more than you thought you could possibly learn about vitamins. If you need vitamins to survive (you do), you should read this book.
Correction (2/20/15 9:17 am): This review originally stated that the 1976 Proxmire amendment prohibited the FDA from requiring efficacy and safety testing. The Proxmire amendment actually just prevented the FDA from setting limits on the contents of supplements. It was the more recent Dietary Health and Education Act of 1994 that prevents the organization from requiring safety and efficacy testing of supplements.