How Americans Became Obsessed With Vitamins, and Why That’s a Problem

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Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/Getty Images, Shutterstock

For many Americans, taking vitamins — often fruity Flintstones-themed ones — before heading off to school was a regular part of daily childhood life. Now “taking our vitamins” is almost automatic for a big chunk of the population. Americans drink vitamin-enriched sports drinks, eat vitamin-fortified foods, and spend billions of dollars yearly on multivitamins. And yet despite the fact that scientists have been researching them for over a century, vitamins are still poorly understood by nutritionists — not to mention laypeople. According to journalist Catherine Price in her new book Vitamania: Our Obsessive Quest for Nutritional Perfection, this gap in knowledge has allowed an expensive — and potentially dangerous — delusion to take hold.

Though researchers may understand what vitamins are on a basic level — scientists have names for them, know humans need them to survive, and have a general sense of what purposes they serve — Price notes that no one fully understands exactly what they do, nor the potential negative consequences of saturating our bodies with huge quantities of them. And vitamins often cover for other forms of nutritional deficiency: Many Americans get their daily vitamins from fortified but otherwise unhealthy, processed foods — a practice that provides the illusion of health, but ultimately results in a much less healthy country.

In Vitamania, Price explores how Americans became so vitamin-crazed and explains how our desire to be healthy can blind us to how little we actually know about these seemingly magical substances. Science of Us recently spoke to her about her research.

What exactly is “vitamania”?
We tend to think that vitamins can hold the key to good health, and we let this enthusiasm for the idea get in the way of our good health.

How did taking vitamins become the ideal of “health” in the first place?
Well, first let me clarify: There’s a difference between vitamins and dietary supplements, which is something that I used to confuse all the time, and which is still a source of a lot of confusion among the public and in the media. There are only 13 human vitamins: A, C, D, E, K, and then 8 B vitamins. But there’s something like 85,000 dietary supplements. So just to clarify, I’m talking about the actual 13 vitamins. Those vitamins, unlike the other dietary supplements, actually are essential for human health — we would die without them.

I think that, in the beginning, when vitamins were discovered at the turn of the 20th century, they really were miraculous; you had these vitamin-deficiency diseases that could suddenly be cured very quickly by these substances. So they kind of had this aura of the miraculous about them, and also this idea that they weren’t harmful because it’s pretty much impossible to overdose on most of them — except for A — from food.

And then when it became possible to put them into pills, which was in the 1930s and the 1940s, we kind of combined that belief in their miraculous abilities with our own fears about deficiencies; there was a big concern during World War II about whether Americans would be well-nourished enough in terms of vitamins. So we kind of had this dual desire to have our health optimized but also to be safe from deficiencies that made us think, Oh, we’ve better start taking pills, and I think that’s continued through today.

So what are the potential risks to taking vitamin supplements, as opposed to just getting them through food?
In terms of the 13 actual vitamins, it’s not that they’re bad for our health, necessarily. It’s more that we’re getting this sense of nutritional confidence that’s unsubstantiated in our diets. We actually are missing out on other stuff that we can’t get, and it may be really important. If you are one of those people who are already eating according to the way we know we should be eating, with all your vegetables, and fruits, and unprocessed foods, you’re probably fine without vitamin supplements. But there are some people whose diets are so poor that they’re actually not getting enough vitamins, so they take supplements to make up for it, and that can be harmful.

The other thing that concerns me is that we have so many products that have so many extra vitamins. If you have a Vitaminwater, and a sports bar, plus your breakfast cereal, plus all these other things you can get — often at the gym — that have many times your required amounts of daily vitamins, then you start getting into this situation where you have really high doses of vitamins, far beyond what you can get from food, and far beyond what need to prevent deficiency. We don’t really know what the long-term effect of this is.

So, in a nutshell, it’s a problem if you’re missing out on everything else in food that naturally contains vitamins, and there’s potential long-term risk in constantly saturating our bodies with way more than we actually need.

You pointed out in your book that science has known what vitamins are for over a century. Why do you think it is that most people don’t know much about them?
I think that most of us who aren’t in the sciences don’t really know much beyond their names. We just know that we need them, and we’ve been taking Flintstones vitamins since we were a kid and don’t think too much about it. But the other thing is that even though scientists understand the basics of what they do — like, we know that you need vitamin C to prevent scurvy or vitamin D to support bone health — there are a lot of other things that they could be doing that we don’t really understand.

It gets confusing for people when you have headlines that say one thing one week and another thing the next week, like about vitamin D, for example. We really want to act on that information very quickly, before the scientific answers are figured out. So we know the basics of vitamins, but there’s a lot we don’t understand, and I think the public doesn’t recognize how much we still don’t understand, which makes us really vulnerable to getting swayed by all these headlines.

How do vitamin manufacturers and food companies contribute to the notion that taking vitamin supplements and eating fortified foods are “necessary” for health?
I think the fear of deficiency is really a driving factor. There’s this idea that vitamins are part of a nutritious breakfast, that we need this supplementation, that we should be drawn to products that contain this supplementation, starting by giving them to our kids. I don’t know that they encourage it so much at this point as much as just play off of it. Vitamin Water is a great example; it’s such a strange product. I mean think about it: if you wanted a combination of a fruit-flavored beverage and a multivitamin, why wouldn’t you just have whatever fruit-flavored beverage you wanted and take a multivitamin? It’s just a sugar-sweetened drink and it’s not actually healthy, but the message on the bottle makes it sound like it is.

I think actually one of the main dangers, again, isn’t the synthetic vitamins themselves, but the fact that they’re put into these products that are otherwise totally unhealthy. They kind of disguise the fact that these products are so unhealthy, so we end up eating them. In general, I think that happens a lot, where you’ll have health claims that there are various nutrients in a product, but when you actually take a step back and think, What is this? — it’s just like sugar with added nutrients. It’s dangerous because they’re deluding us.

Is there anything else you want readers to know about Vitamania?
There’s one thing I’ve noticed that doesn’t seem to come across when people write about this, but I do want to emphasize: Vitamins are essential, and nutritional deficiencies are a huge problem in the world. This isn’t a problem of the past. There are hundreds of thousands of people, at least, going blind and dying from Vitamin A deficiency, for example. Even in the States, there are problems, but at the same time I think the issue is that it’s very easy to think that vitamins are the be-all, end-all to health. It’s very easy for us to allow the presence of vitamins in food to blind us to its actual nutritional content. I hope the book will help all of us become more aware of this kind of manipulation when it happens, so we can think more intelligently about the foods we decide to eat. We should pick foods not because they have vitamins added to them, but because they actually are naturally nutrient-rich.

This interview has been edited.