Drew Turney reviews a book investigating the dubious vitamin industry.
Vitamania: Our Obsessive Quest for Nutritional Perfection
By Catherine Price
The problem with vitamins and the industry that surrounds them – the subject of 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 advances of medical science we still have virtually no defence against many diseases.
And with so many of us desperate for good health, manufacturers who use the word “vitamin” on any old concoction and promise miracles are laughing all the way to the bank. Vitamania is a levelheaded but urgent look at the marketing, industry, science and disinformation surrounding one of the most common and least understood words in nutrition.
This book is partly an exposé of the supplement industry, revealing how the word “vitamin” has become as much a marketing as a scientific term. Supplements skirt regulatory boundaries by using words such as “improves urinary health” because they’re not allowed to say “cures urinary tract infections”. Author Catherine Price moves elegantly from the science of vitamins to 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 or escape regulation in the US, with supplement manufacturers on one side and bodies such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on the other. You’d like to think regulators won, but not only did the lobbies thrash the FDA resoundingly, it’s horrifying to learn that muscular-sounding supplements are not even subject to the same oversight as other foodstuffs.
A 2013 Canadian study of 44 supplement products revealed that a third did not contain anything that was listed on their labels.
If you are more interested in the science than the politics there is still plenty for you in Vitamania. Price begins by outlining what vitamins are and why we need them. Most of us in the Western world get all we need from our diet. Yet we are filling ourselves up with more of them because we think they’ll perform miracles. This 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 is better to take the one that sounds like it’s judging her (Supercritical Omega‐7) or the one that sounds like an elite military unit (Sea Buckthorn Force).