Vitamania - Our Obsessive Quest for Nutritional Perfection", by Catherine Price, ( Penguin Press) is an informative and entertaining read.

The journalist provides an account of the discovery and rapid commercialization of vitamins and the current under-regulation of dietary supplements .She argues in her book, the rise in our use of vitamins to fortify foods has been associated with a reliance on less nutritious food and a belief in the magical powers of vitamins.

There are 13 vitamins, most of which were isolated in the 1910's and 1920's, and approximately 85,000 dietary supplements. If you have a vitamin deficiency, taking the vitamin relieves the symptoms within days, introducing the idea that food contained these amazing chemicals. The problem being that we now believe if a little produces such miracles in true deficiencies, then a lot must even be better. Studies are difficult as vitamins are contained in food and it is not easy to isolate individual vitamins and undertake appropriate research regarding claims for benefit except in nutritional deficiency states.

Despite the improvements in the science of nutrition relating to the function of vitamins, many claims for vitamins include improved behaviour, prevention of cancer, prevention of heart disease, a cure for the common cold, improved sexual function and beauty effects. None of these have been established.  No-one would argue that vitamins are important for health and wellbeing, but many look to dietary vitamins and supplements as a source of hope for problems for which western medicine does not have good solutions.

The book looks into the importance of economic factors in the development of specific vitamin products and the manner in which public opinion was moulded to drive corporate profits, taking into account the actual properties of the vitamins. The conflicts between pharmacists, doctors, scientists, corporate wealth and public good and public opinion are well described.

Supplements are not tested for safety or efficiency in the same way as medications and drugs, allowing the manufacturers to make claims such as " supporting the immune system", which we read as preventing colds. There is no independent testing either to guarantee that the vitamins and supplements within a bottle are in the dose or product as  labelled.

She concludes by advising that instead of reaching for a bottle of pills, we should be eating unprocessed  food, which is naturally rich in vitamins ( except for those who require supplements due to medical reasons -  or dietary choices)

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