This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode V is for Vitamin, first released on April 11, 2017. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
(FLINTSTONES VITAMIN JINGLE)
CYNTHIA GRABER: Once I get that jingle stuck in my head, I can never get it out. Those of you who grew up in the U.S. will probably recognize it—that song is trying to make sure parents bought and gave us our daily…
NICOLA TWILLEY: Vitamins! And I’m sorry folks, I’m going to say it that way throughout. Even if our guest this week did make fun of me for it. Because that’s what we’re going to be talking about this episode: vitamins.
GRABER: Or vitamins. We’ll forgive you, Nicky, your native British pronunciation.
TWILLEY: Either way, we both need them. We all need them. But what are they?
GRABER: And how did we figure out what vitamins are, and why need them? That story involves chickens, doughnuts, and, yes, the Flintstones.
TWILLEY: Plus some news you can use: are we getting enough of them?
GRABER: All that and more this week on Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through lens of science and history. I’m Cynthia Graber.
TWILLEY: And I’m Nicola Twilley. But first, we want to tell you about some of our sponsors this episode.
GRABER: But, before we get back to vitamins, we want to tell you about the survey that so many of you helped us out with. A huge thanks to all of you who filled it out—we exceeded our goal! You provided lots of super helpful information, and it’ll help us support the show and make it better.
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GRABER: So, to help answer all our vitamin questions, we turned to an expert.
CATHERINE PRICE: My name is Catherine Price and my book is Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food.
TWILLEY: OK, we have our expert. Let’s start with something basic, like what is a vitamin.
GRABER: Except it’s not quite so basic.
PRICE: The tricky thing about providing a standard definition of a vitamin is that technically there really isn’t one. But, for the purposes of not totally confusing us right from the beginning, you can say that a vitamin is a substance that we need in very, very small amounts in order to prevent a particular deficiency disease and the substance is found in food.
GRABER: So, sticking with the basics, how many vitamins are there?
PRICE: So the the list of vitamins today would be A, B, C, D, E, and K. And there are eight B vitamins that go by other names like niacin or thiamin and riboflavin—things like that. But there’s 13 total human vitamins.
TWILLEY: These 13 vitamins—they are our cast of characters today. And really, they’re kind of VIPs. I mean, we would die without them, that’s how important they are.
PRICE: We need vitamins because they help make reactions happen. And they do so by helping to create or help facilitate these things called enzymes, which are large protein molecules that help chemical reactions speed up by multiples—I mean, up to millions, millions of times faster than they would on their own. And that keeps life going.
GRABER: Here are some of those chemical reactions we completely rely on vitamins in food to make happen: regulating our body temperature, excreting waste, synthesizing DNA, building and breaking down muscles and bones. Blood clotting. Energy production. The creation of the chemicals that allow our nerves to communicate—and that means they’re keeping our brain functioning.
TWILLEY: Basically everything. If all these reactions were left to run at their own speed, without enzymes, life would grind to a halt and we’d die. Enzymes speed them up, so that’s good. But the body needs vitamins to build these enzymes. So the next question is, where do we get these magical substances?
GRABER: We get almost all of these vitamins from plants. But why are plants making them in the first place?
PRICE: Obviously, plants don’t eat food. They get their energy from the sun and from water and they have chemical reactions called photosynthesis that creates energy that they can use to grow and store energy. So plants need vitamins to catalyze those reactions for themselves, just as we need vitamins to help with reactions in our own bodies.
TWILLEY: Plants are great at making useful chemicals and they can make all of the vitamins except for D and B12. Humans are not so good but we can make vitamin D, actually. Which is weird.
PRICE: Vitamin D is weird for many reasons, but that one, you know, we typically think of vitamins as things you need to get from food. But humans actually are totally capable of producing vitamin D in response to sunlight via a chemical reaction in our skin. And in fact that’s probably the way we were meant to get vitamin D because it exists in very very few animal products or food products at all.
GRABER: One of those 13 vitamins we need doesn’t come from plants or sunlight—we get it from meat. That’s B12. And actually, it’s in meat because it’s made by bacteria. All the B12 in the world is made by bacteria. The animals like cows and clams that we get it from, they absorb the B12 that the bacteria in their guts make.
TWILLEY: As it turns out, we humans also have vitamin B12-producing bacteria in our guts. But, sadly, they live in the end part of our guts, after the part of the intestine where B12 can actually be absorbed. There are a few other animals like us, including rabbits and gorillas. We’re called hindgut fermenters, technically. Anyway, rabbits get around this B12 problem by eating their own poo. Humans tend to get around it by eating animals. Or supplements.
GRABER: Good thing, too. So this is why for cows, B12 isn’t a vitamin, because their body makes it naturally from bacteria. A vitamin is something you have to get from eating food.
TWILLEY: Our distant, distant, distant ancestors—I’m talking single-celled organisms here—they could make all the chemicals they needed for metabolism. So there was no such thing as a vitamin for them.
GRABER: Over billions of years of evolution, and through the evolution of animals and plants, we—we eventual humans—we lost those abilities to make all those chemicals, because we can get them from our environment. Vitamin C is an interesting example.
PRICE: Scientists hypothesize that humans probably did have the capacity to make some of the substances we call vitamins in the past. And the one that’s usually brought up is vitamin C because we technically have the genes to create it but there’s a disabling mutation that makes us not be able to make it. And the general theory is that we may have evolved to not make our own vitamin C because we were surrounded by plentiful sources in nature, since vitamin C is contained in, you know, fruits and vegetables.
GRABER: All that vitamin C that we need from fruit and the vitamin B12 from meat in our diets—it’s all crucial to our survival. But even though we cannot live without them, the amount of each vitamin that we need to to power our bodies is vanishingly tiny.
PRICE: Vitamins are extremely, extremely hard to measure because they exist in minute quantities, like fractions of a salt crystal, for example. Crazy small.
TWILLEY: The amount of vitamins in foods is often so, so tiny that it can’t even be weighed. You have to figure out how much of the vitamin is there by how fast a bacteria that eats it grows. That’s how crazy small these amounts are.
PRICE: So that was another obstacle and challenge in the discovery of vitamins was that they really were essentially invisible.
GRABER: We take vitamins for granted, it’s hard to imagine that there was ever a time that we didn’t know about vitamins in our food. But they’re a really recent discovery.
TWILLEY: And the story of that discovery starts in Southeast Asia, in the 1800s.
PRICE: So in Southeast Asia, particularly in the mid to late 1800s, this mysterious disease started popping up called beriberi, and it involved nerve damage and then also cardiovascular issues and killed people also in grotesque, painful, and horrible ways, much like scurvy.
TWILLEY: Ironically, beriberi really only started being a huge problem thanks to technological innovation. That’s actually true of most vitamin deficiency diseases. Catherine mentioned scurvy—we covered that in our citrus episode. That’s a disease caused by a lack of vitamin C. Scurvy didn’t become a huge problem until better sailing and navigation technology meant that ships could be away from shore for months at a time and people weren’t eating fresh fruit and vegetables.
GRABER: In beriberi’s case, the disease only became a huge problem after the invention of better rice-milling technology.
PRICE: So this started to really become an issue after the invention of better rice-milling technology, meaning that technology that would automatically remove the rice husk and leave behind just the white rice that we typically eat today. So in cultures where rice was a main substance in the diet, there started to be this outburst of this mysterious and horrible disease.
GRABER: People in Asia are wondering: what is causing this horrible disease? At the same time as beriberi is exploding, in Europe, scientists are discovering that there are these tiny, microscopic creatures called germs that can cause diseases.
PRICE: And that caused a huge amount of confusion in terms of the search for the source and the cause of these deficiency diseases, because people started to look for a bacterial cause of things like beriberi and scurvy.
GRABER: Take a second here and think about this problem. To understand vitamin deficiency diseases, you have to understand that food contains vitamins—these are invisible substances that are essential to your health. Lots of people are trying to figure out what’s causing beriberi. Almost all of them are looking for a thing—a germ or an infection that causes the disease. They’re not looking for a thing that’s missing. There isn’t even the concept that this could be a problem.
TWILLEY: This is a recurring thread with vitamins. Until you have the idea of a deficiency disease, you can find the cure for the symptoms, but you won’t understand what’s actually going on.
GRABER: OK. Back to Southeast Asia in the late 1800s. Specifically Indonesia, which was a Dutch colony at the time. Lots and lots of people are dying of beriberi.
TWILLEY: And so the Dutch send over a doctor called Christiaan Eijkman to figure out what the hell up.
PRICE: And he comes over and he’s told to try to figure out what beriberi is and what causes it and how to cure it. And so his assumption is that there’s a bacteria. So he starts by getting a population of chickens, which he chose kind of randomly, and it happens to be very lucky that he did because chickens are one of the animals that are most prone to beriberi.
GRABER: Not all animals need to get thiamin in their diet, so not all animals suffer from beriberi. Chickens do. Not that Eijkman had any idea about any of this.
PRICE: So he picks chickens and then he divides them into two groups and he injects one group of chickens with blood from people who had beriberi to see, because that presumably would give them beriberi. So he sits back and watches and those chickens do start to get beriberi-like symptoms. But then he notices the control group is too, so that’s confusing. So then he says, OK, well, that maybe that’s because bacteria are transmitted by air and these chickens are too close, so we need to separate the populations and put them in separate cages in different rooms. So he tries various permutations of this. But the control group keeps getting sick. And then at some point, he does an experiment with the chickens in separate rooms and they don’t get sick. Neither group gets sick.
TWILLEY: What the what?
PRICE: And what’s more, the chickens that had been sick all get better. Which to me is just like, I mean, what would you do if you’re that researcher or you took I don’t know how much time infecting the chickens with supposed beriberi and it just goes away—like, it all just goes away? You start to think you’re delusional, like, did that really happen? And to his credit he didn’t just throw up his hands.
GRABER: Instead, Eijkman kept his scientific cool and tried to figure out what was different.
PRICE: And he happened to speak to this laboratory assistant who said, well, you know, in the beginning of the experiment the chickens were being fed rice but they were being fed a special kind of rice. They were getting the leftovers from people and the leftover rice was white rice. And then at some point, word got around that the chickens were getting this fancy rice, because that was a fancy, expensive kind. And they said you shouldn’t be giving that to lab chickens. Go back to the regular rice. So the chickens had been given regular rice, which was the kind that was brown and that still had a lot of its husk on it. And that happened to coincide with when the beriberi-like symptoms disappeared. So that gave Eickman the idea that, wait a second, maybe there’s something about the food that’s making a difference here.
TWILLEY: So now he needs to test this theory on humans. After all, he’s not even completely sure chicken beriberi is the same disease as human beri beri.
PRICE: And you can’t really ask the chicken the same diagnostic questions as people.
GRABER: It happens that Eijkman had a friend who ran a bunch of prisons, and they happened to serve the prisoners different kinds of rice. So he and his friend figured, let’s see what the rates of beriberi are in each prison and compare them to the type of rice the prisoners were eating.
TWILLEY: And basically the deal was in the prisons where men were getting just white rice, a quarter of the prisoners had beriberi, and in the other prison where it was brown rice on the menu, only 1 in 10,000 got the disease. So brown rice clearly had something that Eijkman called anti-beriberi factor.
PRICE: So you think, great. Like, he must be a Dutch hero. But, no, he didn’t get that response. He got mocked by his colleagues.They said, you know, I can’t believe it took six years to come up with such a stupid hypothesis, and, like, basically skewered him. Said that he must be suffering brain damage himself because of eating too much rice.
GRABER: His colleagues just couldn’t imagine that anything other than germs could cause disease. Eijkman had to be nuts.
TWILLEY: Eventually, Eijkman got a Nobel prize for his efforts, but it took a long, long time for people to accept that beri beri wasn’t caused by germs but instead by a nutritional deficiency. Eijkman’s anti-beriberi factor goes on to become the first vitamin ever found: thiamin.
GRABER: But finding and naming thiamin took another couple of decades. Thiamin was the first vitamin discovered, but for all of the vitamins, the discovery process took a long time.
PRICE: So it requires multiple steps of recognizing that such a thing exists, and then actually chemically isolating it. So, using tons—I believe it was literally tons of rice husks—to crystallize a tiny bit of thiamin so you can look at a substance and say that is thiamin or that is vitamin C. Then you need to understand the chemical structure of it, and then you need to be able to reverse engineer it, to be able to create it. And that last step, to give you a sense of how recent this all is, vitamin B12 was only figured it out in terms of actually its chemical structure in the 70s.
TWILLEY: So identifying and isolating vitamins actually took an extraordinarily long time, for each and every single one. But there’s something else kind of shocking about this whole thing, and that’s how recently the word vitamin was invented. It’s barely a hundred years old.
PRICE: The history of the word vitamin to me is one of the most fascinating things I found out when I was researching the book. Because when I started out I just thought that had been around since time immemorial and that—you know, it just seems so familiar. It’s like air, so how could that possibly be a new creation? So I was shocked when I found out that actually the word vitamin only dates to 1911. And when it came out people didn’t accept that as a word.
TWILLEY: The reason they didn’t accept vitamin as a word is that it was totally made up.
PRICE: And the story there is that there was a Polish biochemist named Casimir Funk. It’s a great name.
GRABER: Funk was studying beriberi. And, unlike everyone who was obsessed with germ theory, Casimir Funk—like Eijkman—he thought that beriberi was caused by a deficiency in some mysterious nutrient that nobody had found yet.
PRICE: So he went a step further than his colleagues though because he decided he was going to give it a name—give the substances a name. So he took the Latin word for life which is vita, and then he took the word amin or amine, which is the chemical structure that he thought that all these substances were going to share. And he mashed them together and he came up with vitamine, or vitamine—it probably was vitamine at that point. And it had an e at the end.
TWILLEY: Vitamine. Or vitamine. I kinda like it.
PRICE: So Casimir Funk loved his new word vitamine and he really wanted to get it into the public. But he was having trouble because his medical colleagues didn’t think that it was right to just make up a word and start dropping it into medical texts. And so in 1911, he tried and totally failed. It got cut. He had to refer to these things by a much more circuitous manner and it had some horribly boring title. But then in 1912, he figured out a way to get a paper published in a publication that didn’t require the approval of his superiors. And in that one he just started dropping vitamine, like, right and left. I think it appears 27 times in that paper. He just acted like, yeah, it’s a vitamine, like, what’s your problem?
GRABER: So Casimir Funk just threw that word vitamine around in his scientific paper. But it still took a while to catch on.
PRICE: The reason it wasn’t particularly popular in the beginning and it didn’t catch on is that, first of all, vitamin doesn’t refer to—there isn’t actually a technical definition, because as it turned out they’re not all amines and they’re lumped together more because of historical happenstance than they are because of anything chemical. So legitimately they probably shouldn’t be called vitamins. But his competitors’ suggestions were really bad. So there are things like anti-beriberi factor or food hormone or fat-soluble A, water-soluble B. I mean, just these things that were not catchy at all.
TWILLEY: Meanwhile, the general public is starting to hear about these magical new substances. And they like the sound of vitamines.
PRICE: By the early 1920s, you still have multiple words in use to describe the same substances. And the scientific community was having this big debate about, like, are we even going to keep this word because it’s ridiculous and stupid and we probably shouldn’t. But then they realized, well, people seem to be using it, so we better standardized this somehow. So one chemist suggested that they drop the final e because they weren’t all amines, so at least get rid of that controversy. And then he suggested putting the letters on them, because the main alternate way of referring to vitamines at that time was with this fat-soluble A, water-soluble B, water-soluble C terminology. And so that got smushed together and that is how we ended up with vitamin A, vitamin B, vitamin C, vitamin D, that we’re so familiar with today.
GRABER: So that’s the origin of the word itself. And then they’re named after letters of the alphabet. But there are multiple Bs, and a big gap between E and K.
TWILLEY: Did these scientists not know their alphabet? Or what?
PRICE: Vitamin B, interestingly, was originally thought of as one substance. And then scientists started to recognize it was actually eight separate substances. So that’s why we have B1, B2, B3. You may be saying, wait a second, we have a B12 but we don’t have—there’s only eight of them. How did that happen? And that speaks to the other thing that happened with vitamins is that some substances that people originally thought were vitamins turned out not to be vitamins at all. So those just got kind of thrown out. And there’s these gaps, like there’s no B 11, like these gaps in the terminology.
TWILLEY: And by the time this whole process is done and we finally know our vitamins, we enter a brave new world of vitamin donuts and sheep-wool processing factories in China. All still to come after we tell you about bras, bell peppers, and a couple of our sponsors this episode.
TWILLEY: So the other thing that is going on, while scientists are discovering vitamins and arguing about what to call them, is a much larger shift in how we understand and think about food.
PRICE: Another thing that needs to happen before you can conceive of a vitamin is that you need to understand that food can be broken down into parts.
GRABER: First, in the early 1800s, scientists discovered that food could be broken down into three major macronutrients. These are fat, protein, and carbohydrates. This is a big change in how people looked at their food.
TWILLEY: And then by the end of the 1800s, you get the concept of the calorie. We made an entire episode about the history and science of calories, which is truly bizarre—you should listen to that if you haven’t already. But the point is that scientists are measuring and analyzing food in completely new ways: grams of protein, numbers of calories…
GRABER: And now, in the early to mid 1900s, vitamins are the newest addition to the quantification of food.
TWILLEY: And this new mindset of thinking about food in terms of its parts, rather than as a whole—it starts trickling out of the lab and onto American plates.
PRICE: One of the people who was the biggest name associated with vitamins at that time was this guy named Elmer McCollum, who was a research scientist and he did a lot of work on vitamin A and vitamin D. Anyway, he also happened to write a nutritional and health column for McCall’s magazine, which was a woman’s magazine that was very popular at the time. And he was kind of like the Dr. Oz of the 1920s, where he was a respected, medical-seeming figure, and people really took his words seriously. So he started to write about vitamins.
GRABER: And Elmer McCollum—even though there wasn’t much science at the time about the amount of vitamins in food or how much we needed, the whole science of this was far too new—that didn’t stop Elmer. He put the fear of God in housewives.
PRICE: And he basically started to—I was going to say insinuate, but he pretty much said that if you’re not feeding your family, you, American housewife, reading this magazine and not feeding your family a well-balanced diet that has all of these vitamins in it, then you are going to cause your children to develop scurvy and be stupid and maybe blind and all these horrible things, and you’re basically going to cause disaster to fall upon your family. So it caused an awful lot of anxiety among the housewives and the readers.
TWILLEY: Suddenly housewives were supposed to somehow figure out—and remember there wouldn’t even have been nutrition labels on food at this point—I mean, this was just at the dawn of packaged and processed food anyway. But somehow these poor women are responsible for making sure their kids are getting enough vitamin B5, when still today no one knows exactly how much is enough of that.
PRICE: Forget the fact that you had been feeding your family before reading that article and they seemed just fine. You clearly are putting them at risk.
GRABER: Consumers are now worried about vitamins. So, at first, the early processed food companies were not into the whole vitamin thing. But then they saw an opportunity in the fear that Elmer inspired.
PRICE: And they suddenly realized that you’ve got these scientists saying that there are invisible, immeasurable substances in foods, with a catchy name, without which you’ll fall prey to these horrible deficiencies. And no one knows how much of these things you need and you can’t taste them. There’s no way to tell really how much is in the food. So they seize upon this as pretty much like the best nutritional marketing strategy ever, and the one that has really continued to inform the way foods are marketed today. And they start to use the existence of vitamins in their food as proof that the foods are not just healthy but also essential. So you end up seeing these very funny ads for things like canned pineapple, you know, that says, like, every meal should start with canned pineapple. And all these just kind of funny—to our eyes, really funny claims about vitamins.
GRABER: This is all going on before manufacturers could even add synthetic vitamins to foods. They’re just hawking what their food naturally contains.
PRICE: Synthetic vitamins began to come on the scene in the 20s and 30s as people began to figure out what their chemical structures were and then reverse engineer how you can make them. And they caught on pretty quickly. By the time of World War II they were—vitamin pills were widely available. There was a union that negotiated getting vitamin pills as part of its contract. You know, they had “V for victory” vitamin packs. It was definitely the beginning of the vitamin market that we know today.
TWILLEY: So now we have vitamin pills. But, at the same time, vitamins start showing up in processed foods. Food manufacturers add them to everything and anything and then they sell these fortified foods as healthy.
(SUNBEAM BREAD AD)
TWILLEY: My favorite example from Catherine’s book is Schlitz Sunshine Vitamin D Beer, which was launched in 1936 with the tagline: “Beer is good for you, Schlitz with Sunshine Vitamin D is extra good for you.”
PRICE: Or you have breakfast cereals, when the ability to add synthetic vitamins began to be developed—cereals with names like Vitamin Rain. It’s, like, rice shot from guns that has been treated with all these vitamins. And there actually was an attempt to brand vitamin donuts. If you Google the image for vitamin donuts, you’ll see this fantastic picture of these two angelic-looking school children gazing longingly at these donuts with vitamin donuts in big letters in the center. And they actually didn’t get approval for that thankfully. But you can still order prints of it and I have a poster of vitamin donuts in my kitchen.
GRABER: Vitamin Donuts aside, the truth is, the whole processed food industry and the new synthetic vitamin industry—they go hand in hand. You can’t have one without the other. In part, it’s because vitamins are super sensitive.
PRICE: Basically, you can destroy them all sorts of ways. So, by the time you get to the point that you’ve got refined flour that you’re going to use for a Twinkie, that flour does not have very many vitamins in it, and you have to add it back. You have to add vitamins back in.
TWILLEY: And food processing is hardcore—you’re stripping and centrifuging and bleaching and heating. I mean, like Catherine says, in the case of Rice Krispies, you’re literally firing the rice from a cannon to get it to puff up like that.
PRICE: A breakfast cereal is so processed that basically all of its vitamins are destroyed in the processing and then you have to add them back in, by baking them in or spraying them in afterwards to make it nutritionally excusable breakfast. Although, I’d argue no one should eat cereal. But, you know, it’s just kind of like a weird game of taking stuff out and putting it back in. And the question that I began to ask myself is, could we have developed the current food supply, and could we have developed our current food preferences, if it weren’t for synthetic vitamins?
GRABER: This seems like a crazy question, but let’s just go with it. Catherine figured out that in theory, when processed foods and synthetic vitamins were just starting to take over, America had enough vitamins in its food supply through just normal whole foods to feed its citizens. Of course it wasn’t evenly distributed and there was a lot of poverty and malnutrition. But, again, in theory, the American food supply contained enough vitamins to keep people healthy.
TWILLEY: Today, Catherine says, that is not the case, because of the proportion of our food that is processed. Without synthetic vitamins, scientists have calculated that 93 percent of us would be deficient in vitamin E, 88 percent in B9, 74 percent in vitamin A … you get the picture. Processing takes out the vitamin content of foods and most Americans eat a lot of processed foods. So where do those synthetic vitamins that we depend on come from?
PRICE: If you conclude that Americans are dependent on synthetic vitamins in their food supply, then you kind of hope that we make them here, because otherwise that seems like kind of a big vulnerability. If you want to have a crazy thought experiment: if you don’t make enough vitamins in America and whatever country it is that makes them cuts off the supply, then we’re kind of in trouble. Anyway, most of the vitamins are made in China. A lot in India. There’s some manufacturing facilities in Europe. But essentially none are made in the United States. And people often get confused because they think, oh well, there’s all these vitamin pills that are made in the United States. So plenty of pills are put together and formulated in the United States. But the actual raw ingredient, the actual vitamin C or the actual B12, is not made here.
GRABER: Yes, if China cut off our supply of synthetic vitamins, we would be screwed.
TWILLEY: So that’s pretty weird to think about. And how those vitamins are made is interesting too.
PRICE: Essentially, you start with ingredients that you never would think would create a vitamin, like a lot of things come from coal tar. And then you manipulate it chemically in various ways and you end up with vitamin C.
GRABER: Vitamin D is a particularly bizarre one. It links Australia and New Zealand to China and then to American cartons of milk and orange juice. Vitamin D is made from the lanolin, the oil in sheep’s wool.
CP2: So there’s this very interesting industry where lanolin is taken from New Zealand and Australian sheep, shipped to China, purified, irradiated, meaning exposed to ultraviolet radiation, and that prompts the chemical reaction, the same chemical reaction that happens in our bodies in response to sunlight, and creates vitamin D. And then you put into pills or you put it into milk or orange juice and that creates a main source of vitamin D for most people’s diets.
TWILLEY: The vitamin D in your milk or OJ comes from sheep’s wool. It really does.
GRABER: So now manufacturers are tossing synthetic vitamins into food right and left. You see added vitamins everywhere, not just in milk and orange juice and bread but in snacks and desserts and nearly every breakfast food. And then many people top that all off with a morning multivitamin. But how much of these substances do we actually need?
TWILLEY: Well, supposedly there is an answer to that in the form of RDAs. Recommended Dietary Allowances.
PRICE: The RDAs, or the recommended dietary allowances, are fascinating and really confusing. Like, they’re so familiar to us that you’d think that they should represent some true truth, you know, they should be like gospel truth. But the real story about dietary recommendations is that they, too, are a recent development. The first round of the recommended dietary allowances was issued in the 40s as a result of World War II. So there was a desire to try to figure out or quantify how much of the known vitamins people needed to function at their best.
TWILLEY: But what actually happened is that the guy in charge of figuring that out handed off the job to three female nutritionists who were at a conference with him. And he said he wanted them to figure it out by the next morning. Dick move.
PRICE: And so there are these great accounts written by one of the women that was basically, like, the men were off seeing the town and these women are, like, locked in a hotel room being, like, how are we supposed to determine the average person’s niacin requirements? You know, there’s like two experiments on it. Like, what the hell? So they basically came back and were like, we can’t do that, there’s no way to do that. And it became a much bigger project and it evolved into dietary standards and allowances. These were very deliberately chosen words because it worked in a margin of error. And the first ones were developed by basically taking the best guesses based on the evidence of the time and then adding a bunch to it to cover your bases.
GRABER: The science has evolved somewhat since then. But in many cases the standards we use today date to 1968.
TWILLEY: And the other thing is that RDAs are designed to meet the nutritional needs of 97-98 percent of people.
PRICE: What that really means is that most people don’t need that much. And the analogy I like to use with that is it’s like, it’s as if the government needed to knit a sweater in a size that would be big enough to fit ninety seven to ninety eight out of adult Americans. Most people are going to need a far smaller sweater than that.
GRABER: There are problems beyond the size of the sweater with the RDAs. Some vitamins can be stored in our body for a while. Vitamins A and D—we store those in our liver. It’s why you can soak up sun in the summer, create your own vitamin D, and have that vitamin D last throughout the darker winter months.
TWILLEY: And then let’s complicate this even more. Some people genetically have a more difficult time processing and storing certain vitamins.
GRABER: And then there’s our microbiome—all those bazillions of microbes in our guts. They actually create vitamins in our guts that we then absorb. And different people have different microbiomes. Scientists do not have a handle on this individual variation yet.
TWILLEY: So maybe you’re wondering sure, but, bottom line, what’s the harm in taking extra vitamins? More of a good thing has to be good, right?
GRABER: And why stop at a multi? Some people have thought that if if a small amount of vitamins keeps us alive, extra big doses are even better. They’ll cure diseases, like cancer.
PRICE: So things like vitamin C curing cancer, things like that—those not have been proven. And I’d also say that there have been a number of big studies done that seemed like they should have proven that megadoses of particular vitamins like beta carotene, the precursor to A, would have benefits and the opposite has happened
TWILLEY: This is still really cutting edge science. As Catherine pointed out, a couple of decades ago, a big study giving people megadoses of beta carotene to cure lung cancer was stopped when the people taking the megadoses were shown to be not only more likely to get cancer but also more likely to die of a heart attack. But on the other hand, earlier this month, a human trial of megadoses of vitamin C also to cure lung cancer—that was given the go-ahead after the doses were shown not to cause harm. So, basically, the science on megadoses is really not clear. But one thing is certain: more is not always better.
GRABER: But it’s not just that megadoses might be harmful—and they might be—but even regular supplementation? It might also have some unintended side effects. Vitamin B6, or niacin, is known to stimulate appetite. The government started adding niacin to flour in the 1940s. This was important because there actually was widespread niacin deficiency at the time, so that was solved. But researchers have pointed out that extra niacin consumption in our fortified foods—it also correlates with the time that America has gotten more obese. Obviously, a lot of things changed about the American diet at that time, and obviously obesity is super complex. But the point is, vitamins can be looked at like drugs. We don’t usually look at them that way, but they are powerful. And they can have side effects. We don’t know everything that they do in our bodies.
TWILLEY: Because with synthetic vitamins you can take too much—and you basically can’t if you’re just eating normal whole foods, because the quantity of vitamins in foods naturally is so tiny. But the other thing is, food contains hundreds and hundreds of other compounds as well as vitamins. Some we know have health benefits—things like polyphenols and lycopene in tomatoes. Some we don’t know yet, but they could be important.
PRICE: So the example that springs to mind is when I was looking into this company called Neutralite that creates these… they’re not really vitamins, they’re pills, they’re dietary supplements made from concentrated fruits and vegetables. And one of the guys was explaining to me that if you analyze what’s in an acerola cherry, which is a cherry that’s particularly high in vitamin C, you see these spikes for all of these different chemicals in that cherry. Like, there’s a big spike for vitamin C, but there’s all this other stuff, versus if you analyze a vitamin C tablet you’re just going to see a big spike for vitamin C and that’s it. And I asked him, well, what are all those other things that are in the cherry one? And he goes, we have no idea, you know. So I think I think that that speaks to the complexity and the danger of trying to oversimplify.
GRABER: And all these compounds work together in food in ways we don’t understand yet. In a study, rats that were given tomato powder did better than rats given just purified lycopene. There’s synergy in food that we’re still learning about.
PRICE: And, to me, the takeaway with vitamins was to use the historical story and how crazy that story seems to us, because, like, obviously there are vitamins, to then question as being too proud of ourselves in the present and thinking we have figured everything out. Because, you know, a hundred years ago people thought they’d figured everything out and they didn’t even know all the vitamins existed. So what do we not know?
TWILLEY: But here’s my question. Today, more than half of Americans take a dietary supplement of some sort—mostly a daily multivitamin. Should we be?
PRICE: The question of whether take a multivitamin is really common and seems really complicated. But I think you can break it down into some simple, maybe unexpected, questions. The first one is: what are you eating? Are you eating a diet that naturally contains foods that have lots of vitamins? Like, are you eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables and minimally processed meat and dairy? Are you getting time in the sun so you can get vitamin D? Do you live in a latitude that allows that? Then you’re probably fine. I like to say if you’re eating like the cover of a Michael Pollan book, then you’re probably fine on vitamins. If not, I would suggest you change your eating habits, but you also could take a pill. If you’re eating the way a lot of Americans eat, where you’re eating processed foods that have vitamins added back in, you’re basically eating a whole multivitamin. So in terms of vitamins you’re fine. But you’re probably missing out on everything else that whole foods contain.
TWILLEY: I think a lot of people think of multivitamins as like a sensible insurance policy and a heck of a lot easier than changing their diet. But Catherine points out that pretty much all of the big medical organizations, from the American Heart Association to the American Academy of Family Physicians—they do not recommend that healthy people with no special issues take a vitamin supplement.
GRABER: That said, there are certainly cases where people do need supplementation. We’re definitely not saying that all synthetic vitamins are bad.
TWILLEY: And, of course, there are still deficiency diseases today. Catherine says an estimated 2 billion people around the world don’t have access to adequate vitamins in their diet.
GRABER: But, so, here in the U.S., if you do have access to plentiful fresh foods, you’re probably getting enough vitamins in your diet. You do not have to stress. Still, there are some interesting tips about how to get the most vitamins out of your food, and these tips also, in a happy coincidence, cut down on food waste.
PRICE: Some tips for how to get the most vitamins out of your plants have to do with why plants have vitamins which is basically to protect themselves against the sun. And once you think about it that way then all of the kind of rumors you’ve heard about how don’t throw away the peel of that apple, that has the vitamins—you realize it’s actually true. So outer leaves tend to have more vitamins. Produce that is darker tends to have more vitamins because dark colors absorbs more sunlight, which means there’s more radiation. So romaine lettuce is going to have more vitamins than iceberg lettuce.
GRABER: This is true even if the plant is underground—the outer edges tend to contain more vitamins. So don’t peel your carrots!
TWILLEY: Or your potatoes. Laziness rules.
GRABER: But here one thing that Catherine wants us to take away from her book: the vitamin industry and processed foods literally could not exist without each other. Vitamins enabled our processed food industry, and processed food gave synthetic vitamins a reason to exist.
TWILLEY: And that connection is dark, and it really reveals the dark side of vitamins. Yes, we need them. Yes, it is extremely fantastic not to suffer from scurvy. But the discovery of vitamins and the way that both scientists and food manufacturers talk about them has changed the way we think about food in really unhelpful ways.
GRABER: For one, it’s led us to think about food just as the sum of its parts. It’s reductive. It’s just like my grandma used to say to me when I was a kid, “Eat your potassium, drink your calcium,” instead of eat a banana and drink some milk. But bananas and milk are so much more than just those individual minerals.
TWILLEY: And thinking of food in that way also leads to this incredible arrogance of thinking we can reverse engineer it. The extreme example is Soylent, of course. Which I don’t really want to think about.
GRABER: Because it’s disgusting.
TWILLEY: It is. But the point is, there’s so much we still don’t know.
GRABER: This vitamin craze has also scared us. Elmer McCollum scared 1920s housewives, but we’re still scared today that we’re not going to get just what we need. And so we look for the latest food fad—yesterday, it was canned pineapple, or oat bran, today it’s juicing, or omega 3s, or wheat grass, or resveratrol from red wine. We’re looking for the next nutrient salvation. And we turn to the weirdest, unqualified gurus to help us out.
TWILLEY: Oh my God, don’t even start me. Gwyneth Paltrow selling vitamin C nanospheres and $90 doctor designed vitamin supplements that promise to help you lose weight, feel great and keep all those effing balls in the air. I am quoting GOOP.
GRABER: If we’re not being perfectly clear, we do not recommend Gwyneth’s GOOP vitamins.
TWILLEY: I mean, it’s just horseshit. But it’s incredibly powerful horseshit and a lot of us sort of want that silver bullet.
PRICE: And so that fear element of vitamins coupled with the hope that they contain, even in the word itself—like, vitamin is just such a hopeful word. The fear and hope really created much of our current attitude towards food, and then easily transferred over to where we are today with, like, hemp seeds are this miracle food, or chia. You know, there are these trendy foods that all of a sudden are made to seem like they can cure all ills. And it’s within the broader context of, if we don’t perfectly calculate our diet, something horrible is going to happen to us. So what I ended up concluding is that vitamins are really the beginning of nutritional faith in a way. We all want to have control over our health, we want to know what’s going to happen to us. We can’t actually do those things. But we can put our faith in something. And, as I concluded in the book, you know, in religion you put your faith in some sort of God. And I think that in nutrition we’ve put a lot of faith into vitamins.
GRABER: Thanks to Catherine Price, author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Catherine’s book contains many more fascinating stories, including much more about dietary supplements, and you should definitely read it. Links on our website, gastropod.com.
TWILLEY: And we’ll be back in two weeks, with an episode all about Japan’s national fungus. Can you guess what it is?