As a child, I remember eating chalky Flintstone vitamins. I don't remember asking why—it was just part of our morning ritual as we siblings sat down for breakfast. As a young mother, I remember obsessing over my daughters' eating habits, wondering if their growth would be stunted by the omission of a key nutrient. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Catherine Price’s new book, Vitamania: Our Obsessive Quest for Nutritional Perfection, because it reveals where some of these ideas and habits originated. What's stunning about her research is how little we actually know about our bodies and the way they employ these chemicals.
The discovery of the substances eventually called vitamins solved a lot of the problems that had plagued humankind for a long time. Many diseases, such as scurvy or beriberi, resulted from a lack of specific nutrients. Once those nutrients were ingested, people usually recovered.
The discovery of vitamins led to problems as well as solutions, however. As Price explains, people became more enamored of processed foods, which lack many of the healthy benefits of whole foods. Once those processed foods became enriched with vitamins, they took on a perception of healthiness they didn't actually deserve. Does it really matter that Pop Tarts have been laced with essential nutrients? They're still Pop Tarts. Another problem was the anxiety created by experts such as Elmer McCollum, who popularized the use of vitamins, but also employed scare tactics that we are still susceptible to today.
Vitamania is carefully researched, and Price is a curious writer engaged with her subject. Her book offers a compelling new perspective on our quest for perfect diets, perfect bodies and perfect health.