Parsing the World of Vitamins: Catherine Price’s Vitamania

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Editor's Note:

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist whose written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, and more. In her new book, Vitamania: Our Obsessive Quest for Nutritional Perfection, Price examines the roots of our obsession with and confusion about nutrition, and takes it further as she visits manufacturers and labs and test kitchens to uncover the history, hype, and more. Enjoy an excerpt from the book, here.

The General Nutrition Corporation store near my childhood home – that’s the official name of the nationwide supplement chain GNC – is one part science fiction and one part nineteenth-​century apothecary. Its shelves are lined with products whose names are so hi‑tech that they’re incomprehensible, like vitaliKoR Daily Maintenance and Cellucor M5 Extreme. But despite the modern packaging, the fluorescent lighting, and the innumerable mentions of “science,” there’s something oddly anachronistic about it; when I visited it one blustery January afternoon, I felt like I was stepping back in time.

My purpose was dermatological: After three problem-​free decades, I had developed sensitive skin. My hypoallergenic wedding ring gave me a rash, I had dry patches on my arms, and I had recently begun to suffer from intensely itchy calves. I’d tried seeking answers from modern Western medicine – I had done allergy tests for hundreds of chemicals and seen multiple dermatologists – but other than giving me steroid creams and coupons for Aveeno while billing hefty fees to my insurance company, no doctor had been able to help. And so I’d come to GNC with the same purpose that draws countless other people to its aisles: I wanted to find a solution in a supplement.

By supplement, I didn’t necessarily mean a vitamin, though the two terms are often incorrectly used interchangeably. True, technically speaking, all vitamin pills are considered dietary supplements. But dietary supplements are not all vitamins – the term also includes nearly every other legal, nonpharmaceutical product that you could ingest for health, including herbs and botanicals, amino acids, enzymes, metabolites, and the ominous “organ tissues and glandulars” (which are exactly what they sound like: ground‑up organ tissues and glands). Perhaps because of this definition’s expansiveness, when I tell people I’m writing a book about vitamins, they rarely ask me about the ones found naturally in food. Instead, they equate vitamin with supplement, and assume that I’m talking about pills.

Even the signs labeling the aisles in many drugstores use the term “Vitamins” when what they really mean is “Dietary Supplements.” But few supplement manufacturers care to clarify the distinction; on the contrary, vitamins’ universally positive connotations mean that most companies are perfectly pleased to have their chondroitin supplements bask in vitamins’ radiant glow. Consider the Vitamin Shoppe, one of GNC’s competing chains. There are only thirteen human vitamins – and yet the so‑called “Vitamin” Shoppe sells more than eighteen thousand products. Despite their shared categorization, there are significant differences between traditional vitamin pills and the more exotic concoctions on GNC’s shelves – whether they be Chinese herbs, botanicals, or proprietary products with crazy-​sounding names. For example: We know how to identify vitamins chemically. We have a basic understanding of what they do in our bodies.

The question of whether to take additional doses of vitamins as pills is controversial, but there’s no question that the thirteen substances themselves are essential for human health. Their safety profiles have been studied, often in controlled trials; we have at least some sense of how they interact with drugs, as well as which ones, at approximately which doses, can make us sick. While they come in multiple formulations, there are no “proprietary blends” for standard vitamins; their ingredients are listed on the label, and nearly all of them have established RDAs (even if those recommendations are works in progress). Since most of the vitamins in supplements are produced synthetically, their potency doesn’t depend on growing conditions, nor is their supply subject to seasonal variations (both of which can affect herbs and botanicals). And at least in most cases, if a product says it contains vitamin C, it probably really does contain vitamin C.

All this is not necessarily true for non-​vitamin and non-​mineral supplements. And so, in the eyes of government regulators, I assumed they wouldn’t be treated the same way. I was staring at a homeopathic remedy display when a young salesclerk approached, wearing thick-​framed glasses and a woolen hat.

“Can I help you find something?” she asked. I told her about my skin issues.

She thought for a moment. “Are you taking fish oil?”

Yes, I was.

“How much?”

I told her that I’d been taking a few capsules every other day or so, trying to get about a gram total of EPA and DHA, the two long-​chain fatty acids in fish oil that have been associated with brain and heart health.

“Maybe you should try omega‑7s, then,” she said. “They’re very important for the skin.”

I looked at her blankly. In all my research on fatty acids – and as a health journalist with a long-​term interest in fish oil, I have done a lot of research on fatty acids – I had never heard of omega‑7.

“It’s a different type of fatty acid – you can get it from sea buckthorn,” she said.

“Sea buckthorn?”

“It’s a plant that grows in really harsh conditions,” she said, her tone suggesting that its ruggedness alone was a reason I should ingest it. She led me around the corner to a display of supplements and picked up two options, Supercritical Omega‑7 and Sea Buckthorn Force. Since their ingredients appeared basically the same, my choice came down to product name: Did I want the judgmental sea buckthorns, or the ones that sounded like an elite military unit?

I went for the Supercritical.

Text © 2015 Penguin Press