Vitamania: Our Obsessive Quest for Nutritional Perfection


Catherine Price takes us on a journey to Vitamania*, a land where foods cause angst in our daily lives while vitamins and other supplements provide hope for a healthy life. This journey takes us back to a time when unknown diseases were debilitating and killing unsuspecting victims. Fortunately, over a long period of time chemists were able to isolate the key nutrients from certain foods. Lack of these ‘vital amines’ (shortened to vitamins since all of them didn’t turn out to be amines) was causing these wasting diseases. Price shows how this knowledge led to fortified foods, like plant-based milks, and healthier diets, but increased knowledge is not always a good thing. Partial understanding led to our current obsession with vitamins specifically and supplements in general whether in pill form or processed foods.

We learn about the manufacturing and marketing of synthetic forms of these chemical compounds and the misleading descriptions that clutter our media about them. Although the focus of the book is on vitamins, the author views any kind of a supplement as a logical extension of the manufacture and marketing of vitamins. I welcome much of what Price tells us about the benefits and misinformation associated with vitamins and minerals. I just wish she had a better grasp of how they fit into the bigger picture of food science and nutrition. Here is my critique as I use her words as jumping off points.

“anything natural must be safe” The author quickly dispels the myth that natural vitamins are safer and more nourishing than synthetic ones. She clearly indicates that synthetic equivalents are OK to consume. And yet, throughout the book she seems uneasy with the widespread use of synthetic vitamins in supplements and fortified foods. She questions the need for all of these vitamins since scurvy, rickets and other vitamin-deficiency diseases are rare. Such reasoning ignores subclinical consequences of too little of a specific vitamin or mineral in a person’s diet. Vitamin deficiencies are not an all-or-nothing proposition. Price also ignores the history of nutritional deficiency diseases that caused great hardships during the Great Depression in America and were virtually eliminated in the country with food fortification and enrichment.

“it occurred to me that hope is the driving force behind nearly all of the supplements that line supermarket and pharmacy shelves.” One of the most fascinating and influential books I ever read in my life was Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind by Al Ries and Jack Trout. In it they argue that at the heart of any marketing is the appeal to hopes, fears and biases. The principle applies to the marketing of supplements, food products and ideas. Pop nutrition promotes the use of certain vitamins, minerals or other chemical supplements (generally referred to as molecules) to provide hope for good health or allay fears of dreaded chronic diseases. Biases against conventional nutrition and processed foods abound. In Vitamania we learn of a culture that has gone mad over the miracles that specific vitamins or supplements promise us. The claims on these pills, potions and food products far exceed the effectiveness of their consumption, the author contends, and many food scientists and nutritionists agree.  

“But don’t be fooled. There are thousands of phytochemicals in foods we eat, relatively few of which have been rigorously studied in humans, and none of which we fully understand.”  This statement will come as no surprise to anyone who has had a food chemistry course. What is not apparent in the book and not widely known is that most of these phytochemicals in foods are in fresh fruits and vegetables. Contrary to popular belief, processed food products tend to be less complex chemically than whole foods. I contend that we have more extensive knowledge about more phytochemicals than the Price suggests. However, companies should be cautious in selling a specific phytochemical as an individual “molecule” or placing it in a supplement or nutraceutical out of its natural context and at much higher levels. An example of a hot phytochemical of a few years ago that has not been rigorously tested in humans is raspberry ketone, which has no clearly demonstrated benefits and potential harmful side effects.

 “most food safety concerns are about events that occur during or after production, like contamination and spoilage, not about the raw ingredients themselves.” No, no, no, no, no! First, contamination can occur anywhere in the distribution chain from the field to the home. Microbes that contaminate food are all natural. Contamination can come from animals, humans, agricultural practices and handling after harvest. Raw ingredients are frequently the cause of food outbreaks. Recent outbreaks associated with eggs and romaine lettuce are examples of contamination of raw foods before they even left the farm. Farmers who follow Good Agricultural Practices are less likely to pass contaminated foods and ingredients on to handlers and processors.

Companies handling and processing raw foods generally have systems in place to detect contamination of incoming materials and ingredients to minimize the chance of illness from food. Much of what food processors do is to decrease the chances that a contaminated food will reach the marketplace. In addition, spoilage is not the same as a safety hazard. Food spoilage is the result of loss of quality over time to render the product less acceptable or inedible. Unsafe foods are most dangerous when they are not spoiled and thus provide the eater no clue that they pose a danger.

“With the exception of outright poisons, most foods’ effects on health are subtle and take a long time to develop.” Yes, it is true that toxins and food poisoning can lead to serious consequences hours or days after consumption. Effects of food on overall health, however, accumulate incrementally over a long period of time.  Obesity and chronic diseases take time to develop and are difficult to reverse. Thus, any short-term miracle diet arouses skepticism among food professionals. Most dietitians and nutritionists attribute weight gain leading to obesity to an energy imbalance—consistently consuming more calories in food than burned in physical activity over time. Excess weight and overconsumption of junk foods appear to contribute to chronic diseases such as diabetes, metabolic syndrome and other disorders. The evidence that chemical-sounding ingredients such as artificial sweeteners, MSG and high-fructose corn syrup lead to such disease states is not nearly as compelling as pop nutritionists would have us believe.

“blurring the lines between supplements, foods and drugs.” This point is crucial in understanding the role of scientists who work for Big and Little Food as well as Big and Little Pharma. Companies look to exploit a demand, while their scientists design new products and test them for safety and quality to protect the company reputation. Despite claims that big corporations work to manufacture demand, I do not believe that drug and food companies have any need to manufacture it. Pop nutritionists and food evangelists are so busy creating niches for new products, it is all that supplement, food and drug manufacturers can do to push their scientists to create new products that will help counter the most recent concern. Scientists are driven to develop items that seem to be natural and unprocessed. Marketers must come up with new terms that appeal to hopes, fears and biases engendered by the latest health trend. Nimble manufacturers are the ones who will succeed in this environment, leading to the symbiotic relationship between Big Food and food evangelists.

“we still don’t know how to reverse engineer perfect food.” I am not sure what the author means by perfect food, but I would beg to differ. Pet rations designed by food scientists appear to be close to perfection nutritionally. The advent of scientifically based diets has led to the extension of lives for many breeds of dogs and cats. Alternative raw-food diets do not appear to be an adequate substitute. It is the table scraps and “treats” that usually do in our animal companions. Soylent is probably the closest thing to a nutritionally perfect food out there for humans. The food-safety issue had nothing to with its nutritional completeness. The problem with Soylent is that it does not satisfy the cultural and culinary desires of human existence. How boring it would be to live life on a daily ration of Soylent!

Bottom line. There is much to commend Vitamania. It traces the discovery of vitamins and other important chemicals that are essential to human health and how they became to be hyped as miraculous molecules that can banish the ravages of aging. It shows how clever marketing campaigns can fool all of us some of the time and some of us all of the time, but we need to proceed with caution. There were points in my reading of Vitamania when just a little better appreciation of nutrition and food science would have made it a more credible book. I confess to being bitterly disappointed after 225 pages to learn that we can essentially disregard everything we know about vitamins. In the epilogue we read that all we need to do is to “Choose foods that are high in vitamins that nature—not humans—put there; chances are that they are nutritious in other ways as well.” The diet recommended is similar to those recommended in the five-to-ten messages I receive each day from Google Alerts telling me to avoid processed food. It made me feel that I had wasted my time to read the book.

Next week: The (non)sense of nutritional supplements

*Note that the book came out originally as Vitamania: Our Obsessive Quest for Nutritional Perfection. It later came out with the subtitle How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. I read the Obsessive Quest and believe that the two titles are the same book.

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