Do you believe that vitamins hold the potential for endowing you with perfect health? Do you find it hard to resist buying a food whose packaging proclaims, “Rich in vitamins!” Do you suspect that vitamins could cure anything from the common cold to cancer, given large enough doses?
If you said yes to any of the above questions, then you may have fallen victim to…vitamania! The word is from author Catherine Price’s highly acclaimed book, Vitamania: Our Obsessive Quest for Nutritional Perfection.
Don’t worry. Vitamania is a completely curable condition. It’s understandable that most of us believe in the ability of vitamins to create miracles because… well, they have. Thanks to the discovery of vitamins, most of the developed world is no longer afflicted with horrible diseases like scurvy, pellagra, and beriberi, all of which can be prevented and/or cured with doses of the appropriate vitamins.
But Price contends that in today’s world our tendency to deify vitamins prevents us from seeing their limitations and makes us easy prey for the advertising claims of the Big Supplements industry. To keep from becoming a vitamaniac, it’s a good idea to find out what the latest and best science has to say. So, see if you can separate vita-myths from realities by taking the 15-question, true-false quiz below. The answers are from Vitamania. Bonus! At the end of the blog, you’ll see 5 questions to ask yourself before you take vitamins or other supplements.
True. In case you’d like a roll call, here it is: Vitamin A, D, E, and K (these are fat-soluble) plus the nine water-soluble vitamins—the 8 B vitamins and vitamin C. “Multivitamins,” by the way, contain minerals as well as vitamins.
2. T or F? Scurvy, beriberi, and pellagra are not caused by bacteria or viruses; rather, they are “nutritional deficiency diseases.”
True. Scurvy, beriberi, and pellagra are caused by lack of essential vitamins. They can be prevented or cured by small doses of vitamin C, thiamin (B1), and niacin (B3), respectively. Neural tube deficiency in developing fetuses is also caused by a nutritional deficiency—in this case, folic acid.This is why pregnant women need to take special “pregnancy vitamins.” Other known nutritional deficiency diseases include night blindness and rickets.
3. T or F? Taking vitamins can’t hurt you because they are a risk-free, natural product.
False. Just because a product is natural doesn’t mean it’s safe. In fact, overdoses of vitamin A can cause liver damage, birth defects, and even death. (Don’t eat polar bear liver! It contains toxic levels of vitamin A.) Excess vitamin D could cause you to absorb too much artery-clogging calcium. Other vitamins which can cause side-effects ranging from the uncomfortable to the serious include niacin, folic acid (B9), and vitamin C.
4. T or F? If a small dose of a vitamin is good, a big dose must be even better!
False. See above. Megadoses of certain vitamins can be toxic. But even when they are not, scientists have been unable to prove that megadoses of any vitamins, either long or short term, have a positive effect on disease prevention. (Recall that diseases like scurvy, beriberi, and pellagra can be cured with low doses of the missing vitamins.)
You can be a genius and still fall for this myth. Nobel Prize laureate Linus Pauling believed that high doses of vitamin C could cure everything from the common cold to cancer, proving a high IQ is not a barrier to vitamania. General rule: The healthiest and safest doses of vitamins are the ones naturally found in food.
5. T or F? Vitamins are highly concentrated in the skins of fruits and vegetables.
True! (Just remember that some skins—like that of the mango—are poisonous and should be avoided. And of course wash all fruit and vegetable skins thoroughly to remove any pesticides or other impurities that could be on them.)
6. T or F? Synthetic vitamins are chemically identical to forms found in nature.
True. Synthetic vitamins, which is what you take when you take vitamin pills, although made from some very odd ingredients such as sheep’s wool, are chemically identical to forms found in nature. “The primary reason most nutritionists recommend getting your vitamins from food rather than supplements,” says Price, “is not that synthetic vitamins are bad, but that natural foods contain countless other compounds beyond vitamins that might be beneficial for your health, and which supplements and artificially fortified foods don’t contain.”
7. T or F? US companies supply Americans with most of our synthetic vitamins.
False. Most production facilities for vitamin pre-mixes are in China. There are almost no US manufacturers of bulk synthetic vitamins today.
8. T or F? The natural vitamins present in soybeans, wheat, and corn are removed or destroyed in mass processing, say, for bread or cereal; then synthetic vitamins are added to ensure longer shelf life and nutritional value.
True. Fortification (adding synthetic vitamins) is necessary because refining the food has removed vitamins and other essential nutrients.
9. T or F? Even such generally safe substances as garlic, ginkgo biloba, ginseng, and vitamin E can cause life-threatening problems under certain circumstances.
True. Because they are blood-thinners, they could cause life-threatening complications during surgery. This example illustrates why you need to tell your doctor about the supplements you take.
10. T or F? All vitamin pills are considered dietary supplements, but dietary supplements are not all vitamins.
True. The term “supplement” also includes any non-pharmaceutical product that you could allegedly ingest for health, including, in Price’s words, “herbs and botanicals, amine acids, enzymes, metabolites, and the ominous ‘organ tissues and glandulars’ (which are exactly what they sound like: ground-up organ tissues and glands).”
11. T or F? Every prescription and non-prescription medication must earn preapproval for its safety and efficacy from the FDA before it can be sold.
True. Since 1938, when Congress passed the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, drug manufacturers have had to prove their products were safe before putting them on the market. In 1962, additional laws were passed requiring that drugs be proven safe and effective, thus leading to the rigorous drug approval process of today—“which in turn has made America’s pharmaceutical market the most trusted in the world.”
12. T or F? Like drugs, the dietary supplements on the market have been approved by the FDA and must meet rigorous requirements for safety and efficacy.
False. None of the supplements on the market have been approved by the FDA or any other government agency. Thanks to laws passed by Congress under the sway of the supplement industry, it is illegal for the FDA to ever establish standards for supplements such as vitamins, including safe recommended doses.
13. T or F? Although supplements are not required to be tested for safety and efficacy, you can be sure that supplements are labeled properly and therefore contain the ingredients listed on the package.
False. Just recently, the New York Attorney General’s office conducted tests on herbal supplements at GNC, Walmart, Target, and Walgreens. 4 out of 5 herbal products tested were found to contain none—none!—of the herb on the label. What was in these products? Cheap fillers such as rice, asparagus, and houseplants, along with other substances that could cause allergies such as wheat and nuts. Price cites other examples of testing that found that supplements are often spiked with prescription drugs such as Viagra, adulterated with weeds and rice, and sprinkled with exotic substances like seal penis, bat feces, and…well, I won’t go on.
14. T or F? The 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act recently granted the FDA the authority to issue mandatory recalls of unsafe products.
True. However, the FDA can only issue recalls after the product in question is on the market. (By contrast, prescription drugs must go through a long testing process before they can be marketed.) Before it is so costly and time-consuming, the FDA has issued only one mandatory recall of a supplement--the stimulant ephedra (aka, ma huang), but not before it contributed to the deaths of more than 100 people.
15. T or F? A multivitamin is a good nutritional “insurance policy.”
Although the jury’s still out, and Price’s answer might be different from mine, I’m going to say the statement is “True.” (I'm assuming such a vitamin contains established recommended daily allowances.) A well-conducted 2012 study found that male physicians who took a Centrum Silver (which contains moderate doses of vitamins and minerals) for an average of 11 years did have about a 10-12 % reduction in total cancers. (There was no benefit to cardiovascular or cognitive health, however.) Also we know that vitamin supplements among women of child-bearing age can prevent neural tube birth defects; that calcium and vitamin D can prevent bone-thinning in post-menopausal women; and that vitamin B12 (found naturally only in animal products) supplies necessary nutrients for vegans and people over 50. Price warns however, that if we rely solely on multivitamins to fulfil our nutritional needs, we might miss out on important compounds that can be supplied only by eating actual FOOD. (Are you sensing a theme here?)
5 Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Buy a Supplement
Price advises that before you pick up a box or bottle, ask yourself these four questions:
1. What do I think and hope this supplement will do for my health?
2. What evidence do I have for these beliefs?
3. What are the known side effects and interactions of this supplement?
4. Is there are a chance that this product might do more harm than good?
I would add a 5th question: Does the product have a USP stamp?
The US Phamacopeia (USP) is a scientific, nonprofit organization that offers voluntary verification services for supplement manufacturers. When you see this label (see label at website here), at least you will know that some appropriate testing has been done.
Bottom line for all vitamaniacs: If you put your faith only in a magical supplement, hoping for health-in-a-bottle, you might miss out on important compounds in natural foods. Most of us could benefit just from following the 7-word, healthy eating motto of food writer Michael Pollan: “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.”
© Meg Selig, 2015
Source: Price, C. Vitamania: Our Obsessive Quest for Nutritional Perfection (Penguin Press, NY, 2015).
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I am the author of Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success (Routledge, 2009). Please follow me on Facebook and Twitter for entertaining and enlightening tidbits on health, habits, and happiness.
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