Sunday, 15 March 2015

Book Review: Vitamania by Catherine Price

About eight years ago I had a summer internship at a real estate firm in Manhattan. Among my numerous and indispensable responsibilities was to photograph every GNC and Vitamin Shoppe franchise on the island for reasons that were never adequately explained. It was a humongous undertaking and I remember my manager being flabbergasted when I finished my task in under an epoch. The experience left me with two major impressions: the 6 train will always have delays due to signal problems at some station in the Bronx you never heard of (outside of from delay announcements, that is) and that the supplement and nutrition industry is truly humongous (or at least features ridiculous levels of retail over-saturation). Nearly a decade later, both points are as valid as ever, if not moreso. In Vitamania, journalist Catherine Price traces the history of vitamins as well as the science behind it, as well as how businesses have cut some ethical corners peddling the stuff. It makes for a read that is both funny and frightening, but well-researched and informative throughout.

Price begins with a history of vitamins and diseases like scurvy and beriberi brought about by vitamin deficiencies. I found it pretty fascinating how scientists of yore tried to discern the causes of such issues and the wrong trees they barked up before finally identifying the correct ones. She proceeds to outline the 100-year history of vitamins and the way marketers have manipulated consumers with the help of such substances, with plenty of information about how vitamins affect us throughout.

Pop science books like Vitamania must maintain a delicate balance between informing and entertaining. To vastly oversimplify things, authors from academia are better at the former while journalists are the opposite. However, while Price, whose work has been published in the New York Times and Popular Science clearly knows her stuff and additionally has done her homework, combing through tons of incredibly old and/or obscure documents such as Anhydrous Lanolin News while tracing the history of vitamins as well as trawling microfilms of McCall's to chronicle the evolution of marketers doing bad things with nutritional claims. CPG marketers of today can take solace in the fact that there is a long history surrounding absurd health claims, such as a 1937 Fleischmann's yeast ad that claimed the product restored a woman's ability to walk. You'll learn what differentiates fortified foods from enriched and how vitamins actually work. Price does a great job at distilling complex scientific concepts into layman-friendly prose and nothing went over my science-challenged head.

Vitamania is very fair in its assessments and Price is not afraid to take a skeptical tone when necessary. While the book is not an alarmist screed solely written to make us angry and participate in some major social media activism campaign, there are definitely some disheartening albeit illuminating passages on supplement regulations. Essentially the Food and Drug Administration is in a relatively dominant position with pharmaceutical companies. Drugs take forever to get approved and require extensive testing and pharma marketers are severely hamstrung by a slew of regulations. While the latter can be somewhat annoying to those employed by ad agencies with pharma clients, I think it makes sense that drugs are subject to such scrutiny. The FDA is virtually powerless to properly oversee supplements, however, thanks to the Proxmire Amendment, passed by Congress in 1976. This act was largely responsible for the wild west nature of the supplement industry and its outrageous claims, which while fun to read about is also a little unnerving.

The book is too hard science-heavy (there were a few portions that seemed a bit dull to me thanks to very comprehensive explanations) to recommend to book readers everywhere or something (not that this ever seemed like Price's intent) but if you have any interest in nutrition or vitamins and the history of the subject, definitely give Vitamania a read. Getting back to my internship conclusions, I don't think I will ever figure out why the 6 train gets delayed so often. But at least now thanks to Vitamania I have a much better idea of the history behind and science of vitamins.


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