Facts You Never Knew About Vitamins

CC BY 2.0. healthmindandkat -- Vitamin D supplements

From the history of their discovery to their connection with processed foods, an episode from Gastropod reveals how these micronutrients have changed our relationship with food.

Look at the nutrition label on any food container and you’ll see a list of vitamins with amounts per serving. We take these calculations for granted, but it’s interesting to stop and think about a time before vitamins. Well, to be precise, the vitamins were always there, but we didn’t know anything about them or have any clue what they did for our bodies. That took years of research to figure out – and we’re still learning a lot.

An episode on Gastropod, called “V is for Vitamin,” delves into the strange, fascinating world of vitamins and how we’ve become so obsessed with these mysterious substances. Co-hosts Nicola Twilley and Cynthia Graber speak with Catherine Price, author of “Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food.” While the entire 45-minute podcast is chock-full of fascinating information (that I highly recommend you listen to), there were a few key points that jumped out for me.

First was the mind boggling shift that had to occur in the late 1800s to make people understand that some diseases, such as scurvy and beriberi, can be caused by a deficiency of an invisible substance, rather than the presence of a germ. This discovery coincided, within a few decades, with a new way of thinking about food in terms of macronutrients -- fat, protein, and carbohydrates, as well as vitamins -- and the notion that these had to be balanced properly.

Next came marketing campaigns from food companies, that realized they’d been handed the ultimate gift: People want specific substances in their food that are invisible, immeasurable, and nobody really knows how much they need! It was the perfect entry point for companies to convince people that processed foods, fortified with synthetic vitamins, can be 'healthy,' and this continues to inform marketing strategies today.

Another point I had never thought about was where vitamin supplements come from. According to Catherine Price, most are made in China, many in India, and some in Europe. Almost none are made in the United States. Ingredients such as coal tar are mined and manipulated to be transformed into vitamin C. Did you know that vitamin D comes from lanolin in sheep’s wool in New Zealand and Australia, before it’s shipped to China for purification and irradiation, then finally ends up in milk and orange juice on American breakfast tables? It seems like an absurdly complex supply chain, and one that’s all too precarious.

The fact is, many Americans now depend on synthetic vitamins for survival because their diets do not contain enough fresh whole foods to keep them healthy. The irony is that people started eating these processed foods because of their promises of nutritional goodness, but now they've lost the ability or knowledge to nourish themselves without these processed foods. In Gastropod's words, “Vitamins enabled the processed food industry to exist, and processed foods gave vitamins a reason to exist.”

As for all those multivitamin supplements that we've got in our refrigerators or pantries, they're probably not even necessary if you're a normally healthy individual. The best bet is to get vitamins directly from their natural source -- fresh, whole foods. Price recommends eating the peels and outer leaves of plants in order to maximize vitamin intake.

You can listen to the entire fascinating episode below, or check out the many others at Gastropod.