They’re added to breakfast cereal, bread, and even Pop-Tarts, giving the sweetest, most processed treats a halo of health. Most people pop an extra dose for good measure, perhaps washing it down with fortified milk. But what are vitamins—and how did their discovery make America’s processed food revolution possible? On this episode of Gastropod, author Catherine Price helps us tell the story of vitamins, from Indonesian chickens to Gwyneth Paltrow.
We take vitamins for granted, so it’s hard to imagine that there was ever a time that we didn’t know about them. But the word itself is barely a century old, and the concept that our bodies require minute amounts of invisible substances in order to survive is not much older. As Catherine Price, author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food, explained, before scientists could even conceive of vitamins, they had to first understand that food could be broken down into nutrients, as well as discover that certain diseases were caused by deficiencies in these nutrients. And it took improvements in rice-hulling technology, hundreds of thousands of gruesome deaths, and a series of confusing experiments involving chickens before the first vitamin was discovered in the late 1880s: thiamin, or B1.