If there’s one thing about nutrition we think we know for sure, it’s that vitamins are good for us. In reality, however, most of us know nearly nothing about vitamins. And our faith in them—combined with the philosophy toward nutrition that they have enabled—is doing us harm.
Discovered barely a century ago, vitamins were a revolutionary breakthrough in nutritional science, providing cures and preventions for some of the world’s most terrifying diseases. But it wasn’t long before vitamins spread from the labs of scientists to the offices of food marketers, and began to take on a life of their own. By the end of World War II, vitamins were available in forms never before seen in nature—vitamin-fortified peanut butter, vitamin gum, even vitamin doughnuts—and far from expressing skepticism over these products, the public clamored for more. The era of “vitamania,” as one 1940s journalist called it, had begun.
Today, we’re still vitamaniacs, such believers in vitamins’ inherent goodness that we don’t realize just how much scientists still don’t understand about how vitamins work in our bodies, or how much of each we require. We’re not aware that vitamins (and our enthusiasm for them) are what opened the door for the rotating cast of supposed wonder nutrients that intrigue and confuse us today, whether they be probiotics or antioxidants or omega-3s. We don’t notice the ways that food marketers and dietary supplement makers use synthetic vitamins to add a veneer of health to otherwise unhealthy products; nor do we acknowledge the extent to which we use vitamins and these other vitamin-inspired nutrients to give ourselves a free pass to overeat foods of all kinds. And we certainly don’t recognize the irony of our vitamin obsession: that by encouraging the idea that isolated dietary chemicals hold the keys to good health, our vitamania is making us less healthy.
One assumption about vitamins is definitely true: we do indeed require them. The thirteen dietary chemicals that we call vitamins affect each one of us every minute of every day, helping us to think and speak and move our muscles, pull energy from what we eat, even see the words on this page. Deficiencies in these chemical compounds have killed and continue to kill millions of people around 1 the world, and when administered soon enough, vitamins can be astoundingly powerful, even miraculous—give vitamin A to a child suffering from the vitamin A deficiency condition of night blindness, and she can regain full sight within days. Our need for them is ultimately no more avoidable than our need for air; while normally invisible, vitamins’ implications are profound.
But the very power of vitamins makes them a double-edged sword. Their ability to save lives has promulgated the idea that they can perform miracles in all of us, regardless of whether we’re actually deficient; this, in turn, has led to beliefs in vitamins that are based more on faith than fact. When we seek out vitamins today, it’s not because we’re worried about night blindness, or pellagra, or beriberi, or any of the other conditions that vitamins can actually prevent and cure—true vitamin deficiency diseases have become so uncommon in the developed world that most of us don’t even know their names.
Instead, we use vitamins as insurance policies against whatever else we might (or might not) be eating, as if by atoning for our other nutritional sins, vitamins can save us from ourselves. We think that vitamins will help us live longer and stay healthier, even prevent or reverse disease. Perhaps that’s why when we hear the word “vitamin,” our minds often jump immediately to pills, turning substances found naturally in foods into something we don’t just “eat,” but “take.” Yet while we all know that medicines can have side effects, and that no one drug could possibly solve all our problems, we assume that vitamins are both panaceas and entirely risk-free.
In a way, our attraction to vitamins—and general obsession with nutrition—is perfectly logical: our well-being is affected by what we eat, and no one wants to be sick. But that doesn’t explain how the term “vitamin,” a word coined by a Polish biochemist before any vitamin had been chemically identified, has come to be synonymous with health. Isn’t it odd, for example, that cyanocobalamin and alpha-tocopherol sound intimidating, even sinister, while vitamins B12 and E—which are names for the same substances—seem incontrovertibly good? Isn’t it strange that we worry about hydrogenated oils, high-fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, and GMOs, but allow synthetic vitamins to be added to nearly anything without question—and then use the very presence of those vitamins to define the food as healthy? How can we simultaneously harbor distrust toward drug makers and accept extravagant claims on foods and supplements, whose manufacturers make billions of dollars from us each year, at face value? If we were to ask these questions, we might reach an uncomfortable conclusion: that both individually and as a society, we have been seduced by a word.
Despite its influence on our daily lives, most of us are unaware of this seduction. I know this from personal experience—I’m a journalist with a particular interest in health and nutrition, and I also have type 1 diabetes, an incurable autoimmune disease that forces me to pay constant attention to how what I eat will affect my body. I inspect Nutrition Facts panels whenever I encounter them, and I follow stories about nutrition the way that other people follow sports. For reasons both personal and professional, my life depends on being knowledgeable and thoughtful about food.
As a result, until recently, I thought I understood vitamins. I could tell you that they are essential substances that we need to get from our diets, and like anyone who paid attention in fifth grade, I was aware that sailors used to suffer from something called scurvy. But I didn’t really understand why animals and plants need vitamins, how they were discovered, or even the technical definition of what a vitamin actually is. Instead, like many people, I just aimed for 100 percent of my daily requirements, ate a lot of kale, popped a multivitamin when I remembered it, and bought into the common assumption that the more vitamins a food contained, the better for me it must be.
Part of my lack of curiosity stemmed from my assumption that vitamins represented a problem that had already been solved, and which I therefore didn’t need to worry about myself. So when I discovered how much scientific uncertainty still surrounds vitamins (not to mention that billions of people in the developing world still don’t have sufficient access to them), I was both shocked and shaken. If some of the most basic questions about vitamins still have no answers, then what else don’t we know about nutrition? And how should this affect the way we think about food?