The third idea wasn’t new, and wasn’t born from the conference so much as strengthened by it: the notion that vitamins were the key not only to health, but to a state of health-plus, with the ability to boost bodies past sick, past normal, and into something even better. In recent years, researchers have debunked, over and over, the idea that vitamin supplements confer any measureable benefit at all—but still, around half of Americans take them regularly. Together with other dietary supplements, they enjoy a reputation for nutritional power that stretches far beyond their true capabilities.
“In the case of religion, we put our faith in gods. And in nutrition, we have vitamins,” Price wrote in her book. “Despite the fact that nearly half of us take vitamins as pills, nearly none of us stop to wonder why—out of all of the thousands of chemicals in food—we revere these particular 13.” Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation about the history, the myth, and the staying power of vitamins.
Cari Romm: What is a vitamin, and how is that different from a dietary supplement?
Catherine Price: There’s actually only 13 human vitamins: A, D, E, K, C, and the eight B vitamins. But when we use the word vitamin in our everyday speech, we tend to lump in all the other dietary supplements that you could take—things like fish oil or all the herbals and botanicals that you can find if you go into the drugstore or GNC.
In terms of the chemical definition of a vitamin, there actually isn’t one. [Most of those 13] were discovered around the same time, and the word was coined before any of them had been isolated, and it just ended up being such a great word that it stuck around, even after scientists found out that the vitamins actually weren’t all chemically in the same family. But in general, it’s a substance you need in an extremely small amount, usually from your diet, that prevents a specific deficiency.
Romm: If they aren’t all chemically united, what is it that groups vitamins together?
Price: A lot of it is the history. They were discovered because of deficiency diseases—things like scurvy, which is a deficiency of vitamin C, or rickets with D. Or beriberi, which none of us know about now, which was horrible—that’s vitamin B1. And pellagra, which is niacin [B3]. So they were discovered through this process of recognizing the idea of a deficiency disease. And that was really revolutionary, because there was this idea that you could get sick from something you didn’t have, as opposed to a germ. So scientists started hypothesizing in the early 1900s that there was a group of chemical compounds in food that prevented these diseases. In 1911, this Polish biochemist, Casimir Funk, suggested that they be called vitamins. So that’s kind of how the concept became established and the word was created, and why they started to get lumped together. It was only after that point that they actually discovered what the substances were.