“[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 exposé 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
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.