The entire problem with vitamins and the industry that surrounds them that’s being addressed in Vitamania is summed up perfectly in a single observation. Doctors are often disturbingly unsure what ails us, side effects can be worse than symptoms, and despite the advancements of medical science we still have virtually no defence against many diseases like cancer.
And with so many of us desperate for good health, manufacturers slapping the word ‘vitamin’ on any old concoction promising miracles are laughing all the way to the bank.
Vitamania is a level headed but urgent look at the marketing, industry, science and disinformation surrounding one of the most common and least understood words in nutrition.
It’s partly an expose of the supplement industry, revealing how the word ‘vitamin’ has become as much a marketing as a scientific term. Author Catherine Price talks for example about how supplements skirt regulatory boundaries by saying something like ‘improves urinary health’ because they’re not allowed to say ‘cures urinary tract infection’.
She segues elegantly from the science of vitamins – how and why we need them thanks to the lessons learned from early biochemists and diseases like scurvy and beriberi – to exactly how they’ve reached such hallowed turf in the discourse about food health.
Among the most interesting chapters are those about the battle to regulate/escape regulation in the US, with supplement manufacturers on one side and bodies like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on the other.
You’d like to think regulators looking out for consumers’ interests won, but not only did the lobbies thrash the FDA resoundingly, you’re horrified to learn that muscular-sounding supplements don’t even have the oversight of other foodstuffs.
A 2013 Canadian study of 44 supplement products revealed that a third didn’t contain anything listed on their labels, and as Price quite rightly asks, why do we mistrust the drug companies so much and let any idiot slap the word ‘vitamin’ on a jar and put whatever they want in it for us to consume?
If you’re more interested in the science than the politics there’s still plenty for you in Vitamania. Price begins by outlining what vitamins are and why we need them. They’re indeed essential for organic functioning and most of us in the western world get all we need, but filling ourselves up with more of them because we think they’ll perform miracles is pointless – and sometimes harmful.
A science journalist, Price writes in clear language and brings a welcome sense of humour to a dry and at times scary subject. In one passage, while investigating a supplement for a condition of her own, she wonders whether it’s better to take the one that sounds like it’s judging her (Supercritical Omega) or the one that sounds like an elite military unit (Sea Buckthorn Force).