V is for Vitamin

They're added to breakfast cereal, bread, and even Pop-Tarts, giving the sweetest, most processed treats a halo of health. Most people pop an extra dose for good measure, perhaps washing it down with fortified milk. But what are vitamins—and how did their discovery make America's processed food revolution possible? On this episode of Gastropod, author Catherine Price helps us tell the story of vitamins, from Indonesian chickens to Gwyneth Paltrow.

We take vitamins for granted, so it’s hard to imagine that there was ever a time that we didn’t know about them. But the word itself is barely a century old, and the concept that our bodies require minute amounts of invisible substances in order to survive is not much older. As Catherine Price, author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food, explained, before scientists could even conceive of vitamins, they had to first understand that food could be broken down into nutrients, as well as discover that certain diseases were caused by deficiencies in these nutrients. And it took improvements in rice-hulling technology, hundreds of thousands of gruesome deaths, and a series of confusing experiments involving chickens before the first vitamin was discovered in the late 1880s: thiamin, or B1.

Thirty years later, by the 1920s, the American public had started to catch wind of these magical substances. Thanks to Elmer McColum, the Dr. Oz of his day, housewives began to worry about whether their families were getting enough vitamins—and the nascent packaged food industry saw an opportunity. Although industrial processing strips food of much of its natural vitamin content, manufacturers can add synthetic vitamins back in—and promptly start advertising everything from doughnuts to beer as filled with the ingredients essential for health.

Today, celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow swear by the miraculous powers of vitamin megadoses, and more than half of Americans take a dietary supplement every day. But where do all these synthetic vitamins come from—and are they actually doing us any good? Listen in, as Catherine Price takes us on a surprising journey through the history and science of vitamins.

Episode Notes

Vitamania by Catherine Price

Catherine Price's book, Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food, is a fascinating and well-researched read, full of stories that we didn't have space to include this episode. Be sure to check it out yourself.

Science News

This episode of Gastropod was made possible in part with grant funding from Science News, your source for surprising and important science reporting. This week, growing evidence that climate change will make food less nutritious, and a new way to grow toxin-free corn.


For a transcript of the show, please click here. Please note that the transcript is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors