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The Vitamin Complex

Our Obsessive Quest for Nutritional Perfection

by Catherine Price

(London Times)

PRESENTED with a yeast cake today, few people would know what to do with it. But in the 1920s, these foil-wrapped packages of crumbly dryness were the most popular health food in America. Eaten whole or dissolved, they were scoffed by consumers who believed that the vitamins in yeast had the power to reduce colds, cure depression, sharpen intellects and give more health benefits than fruit and vegetables.

Fast forward 90 years and yeast cakes have disappeared but their legacy remains. More than ever, says American health journalist Catherine Price, we are caught in a marketing trap, seduced by the idea that synthetic vitamins can achieve the miraculous despite a glaring vacuum of evidence. The main message of The Vitamin Complex is a familiar one: given how little we know about how food interacts with our bodies, we should revert to getting our nutritional fixes from fruit, vegetables and unprocessed foods. But what Price lacks in original argument, she makes up for in meticulous research and a historical approach that gets to the nub of how we have become nutritionally idiotic when it comes to vitamins.

For Price, the 1920s represented the moment America set out on the path to synthetic vitamin dependency. As scientists broadcasted the idea that vitamins’ powers extended far beyond the prevention of specific deficiency diseases, 'vitamin', Price notes, became 'a synonym for health'. At the same time, processed foods (the manufacturing of which often destroyed the natural vitamins they contained) were increasing in popularity, and manufacturers swiftly began fortifying them and slapping on loud health claims. This practice was then extended to everyday foods. Today, most milk is fortified with vitamin D; the flour in bread is enriched with thiamine, niacin, riboflavin, iron and vitamin D; and many of our cereals get their much-trumpeted vitamin goodness from artificial sources.

Price's rational approach is particularly suited to debunking. She explains clearly why you should never overdose on any vitamin. A chapter detailing how, despite there being 85,000 dietary and vitamin supplements in America, the market is not regulated by the Food and Drugs Administration is especially alarming. The author's message is essentially that of a common-sense nutritionist. You cannot, she observes, reconstruct a carrot’s soul in pill form: if we rely on synthetic vitamins, we miss out on all the other important compounds contained in natural foods.

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