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Vitamania: Our Obsessive Quest For Nutritional Perfection



The startling story of America’s devotion to vitamins—and how it keeps us from good health.

Health-conscious Americans seek out vitamins any way they can, whether in a morning glass of orange juice, a piece of vitamin-enriched bread, or a daily multivitamin. We believe that vitamins are always beneficial and that the more we can get, the better—and yet despite this familiarity, few of us could explain what vitamins actually are. Instead, we outsource our questions to experts and interpret “vitamin” as shorthand for “health.”

What we don’t realize—and what Vitamania reveals—is that the experts themselves are surprisingly short on answers. Yes, we need vitamins; without them, we would die. Yet despite a century of scientific research (the word “vitamin” was coined only in 1912), there is little consensus around even the simplest of questions, whether it’s exactly how much we each require or what these thirteen dietary chemicals actually do.

The one thing that experts do agree upon is that the best way to get our nutrients is in the foods that naturally contain them, which have countless chemicals beyond vitamins that may be beneficial. But thanks to our love of processed foods (whose natural vitamins and other chemicals have often been removed or destroyed), this is exactly what most of us are not doing. Instead, we allow marketers to use the addition of synthetic vitamins to blind us to what else in food we might be missing, leading us to accept as healthy products that we might (and should) otherwise reject.

Grounded in history—but firmly oriented toward the future—Vitamania reveals the surprising story of how our embrace of vitamins led to today’s Wild West of dietary supplements and investigates the complicated psychological relationship we’ve developed with these thirteen mysterious chemicals. In so doing, Vitamania both demolishes many of our society’s most cherished myths about nutrition and challenges us to reevaluate our own beliefs.

Impressively researched, counterintuitive, and engaging, Vitamania won’t just change the way you think about vitamins. It will change the way you think about food.

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Praise

“[An] absorbing and meticulously researched history of the beginnings and causes of our obsession with vitamins and nutrition.”—New York Times

“Behind the bizarre disconnect between rigorous drug regulation and a ‘whatever’ approach to dietary supplements are industry lobbying, Oz-like doctors and politicians on both sides of the aisle whose states benefit from the thousands of jobs provided by the multi-billion-dollar supplement industry. It is not a new story, but Ms. Price gives it a vigorous retelling. She also reminds us that the prophets of vitamania, and their political allies, would all be powerless if it were not for a peculiar kind of deficiency in ourselves that keeps us reaching for ‘a salve against uncertainty.’ Faced with such primal fears, it seems, science is powerless.”—Wall Street Journal

“Catherine Price argues in this persuasive new book, the rise in our use of vitamins to fortify foods has coincided with a reliance on less nutritious foods generally, as well as a magical belief in the power of vitamins.” –Boston Globe

“[M]easured, funny and fascinating
.If you need vitamins to survive (you do), you should read this book.”—Scientific American, Food Matters

“[Price’s] investigation, full of scurvy-ridden sailors, questionable nutritional supplements and solid science, is both entertaining and enlightening.”–Discover

“Catherine Price traces the long history of America’s love affair with vitamins
 her chilling research about the barely regulated supplements marketplace will likely have you rethinking your morning multivitamin.”–Outside Magazine

“Price raises important questions about both supplements and vitamins, and if our government isn’t asking them, at the very least, consumers must.” –Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Entertaining and informative
An excellent addition to collections in public and consumer health libraries.” –Library Journal

“A commanding, meticulously documented, and riling exposĂ© rich in dramatic and absurd science and advertising history, lively profiles, and intrepid, eyebrowraising fieldwork
. Price’s sharp wit, skillful and vivid translation of science into story, and valiant inquisitiveness (she insists on tasting synthetic vitamins and gets buzzed on the military’s caffeinated meat sticks) make for an electrifying dissection of our vitamin habit in contrast to our irrevocable need for naturally nutrient-rich food.” –Booklist, starred review

Author Q&A

Excerpt

The concept of vitamins is so ingrained in our subconscious that we respond to it without thinking, convinced that the mere presence of vitamins in a food means it must be good for us. How did that happen?

I had a hunch as to what time period might hold the answer: the early 1920s, when vitamins leaped from the exclusive realm of scientists to the everyday lives of consumers via stories in the popular press and the advertisements that accompanied them. I was interested by McCall’s magazine in particular because I knew its editors had published several decades’ worth of columns by Elmer McCollum, a Kansas farm boy-turned-scientist who took credit for discovering vitamin A.

McCollum’s recommended meal plan, which he called the Protective Diet, was built around vitamins. McCollum was concerned that Americans’ increasing taste for refined and processed foods was putting them at risk for health problems, including those caused by vitamin deficiencies. So he pushed people to eat more of what he called “protective foods,” including leafy greens such as spinach, kale, collards, turnip and beet greens, and two daily salads that included raw fruits and vegetables.

McCollum was suggesting that American housewives step into a realm of nutritional detail so recently discovered that scientists, including McCollum, were still struggling to chart it. Despite the fact that the word “vitamin” itself was barely a decade old—and scientists’ understanding of the substances was even younger—homemakers were supposed to know that vitamin C prevents scurvy (a disease they’d likely never seen) and can be found in green peppers while vitamin A is important for the immune system and is present in eggs.

The idea that women’s choices in the kitchen needed to be “officially” approved by nutritional scientists represented an important perception shift in who could be trusted to decide what Americans should eat. But McCollum’s supposed encouragements also hid an even more frightening assumption: that any uncareful homemaker—that is, any woman who didn’t follow the Protective Diet—was playing Russian roulette with her family’s health. Like any truly successful health guru, McCollum wasn’t just a cheerleader. He was also a fearmonger.

The public’s growing awareness of vitamins was remarkably successful in changing people’s attitudes toward food. Americans embraced the notion that careful homemakers would ensure that their families— through food and, later, supplements—had “enough” of each vitamin. How much was enough, though? Nobody knew.

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