The Road To Nowhere

Vitamins And Supplements

With all the problems of the SAD diet (Standard American Diet), few would place vitamins and supplements very high on the list of potential troublemakers for Americans. And indeed, with the quality of food in America, some supplementation for those on the SAD diet is probably preferential to not supplementing.

The problems arise because many people think they can eat a poor diet, supplemented with vitamins, and still be healthy. No doubt, this is due in large part to the marketing message behind vitamins and supplements, which not so subtly informs consumers they can do exactly that. has a lifestyle center for people who wants to get healthy.

Interestingly, the over-processing and devitalization of our foods is used as justification for the need to supplement our diets in the first place. Yet, if one carries this train of thought through to its logical conclusion, vitamins and supplements are also heavily processed nutrients which have been isolated and concentrated, devoid of any resemblance to any food in its natural state.

Far from nutrients found in whole foods, some synthetic vitamins are industrial byproducts and others are actually, ironically, byproducts of the food devitalization process itself. For instance, one of the Cargill Corporation’s more valuable raw materials is a soybean distillate — described by the company itself as a “black, ugly, stinking ooze” — which is rich in  tocopherols or natural vitamin E. As it turns out, the material, a waste product Cargill gave away or burned for years, comes from the deodorizing process of refining soybeans and is sold as vitamin E..

Part of the allure of vitamins and supplements comes from the fact that American consumers have been conditioned from cradle to grave to believe that the answer to any problem lies in some magic substance that only needs to be purchased and consumed to make the problem vanish virtually overnight. The supplement industry, which is a 23-billion-dollar-a-year industry, with vitamins, herbs and minerals occupying 9.8 billion of that market, has learned to capitalize on this and manipulates consumers in much the same way as drug companies. In fact, some vitamins are manufactured either by drug companies or through companies which drug companies bought out.

And part of the problem here is that, as the line between vitamins and drugs blurs in consumers minds, the vitamins themselves are products of the same type of mentality that led to the development of drugs as we know them. At one time certain herbs were known to confer special medical qualities that made them beneficial for someone with a certain condition. The medical and scientific communities sought to isolate the beneficial elements of herbs and incorporate them into an easily-marketable pill or supplement. James Bailey, L.Ac., an herb columnist, touched on this and its consequences in an article in Yoga Journal:

Most Western consumers now view herbs and pharmaceutical medication in the same way: each herb, like a drug, remedying a specific condition — for example, St. John’s wort for depression, gingko for memory loss, Echinacea for colds, and senna for constipation. …

For example, the herb kava kava has been in the news lately for its potential liver toxicity. When used the traditional way, kava causes no harm to the liver. In the South Pacific, where the herb is indigenous, only the root of the plant is used. Profit-based pharmaceutical companies, however, have discovered what they think to be the “active ingredient” of the plant, kavalactones, found both in the root and in higher concentration in the stems of the plant. To maximize profits the stems are being mined for kavalactones for the manufacturing of the highly potentized nutriceutical kava products.

So why have Pacific islanders only been using the root and not using the stem? Because more is not always better, and may even be toxic. While a small dose of root-sourced kavalactone can serve to reduce stress and anxiety, high concentrations from the stems of the plant can cause a cascade of unwanted side effects.

The same attitude that leads to problems with vitamins and supplements also permeates the food industry, which seeks to “enrich” devitalized, processed foods with vitamins and minerals to make them more appealing to health-conscious consumers . . . and increase their profits in the process. Michael Pollan, author of The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World, wrote regarding this issue in an New York Times Magazine article, “Selling unprocessed or minimally processed whole foods is a fool’s game, especially since the price of agricultural commodities tends to fall over time, and one company’s apples are hard to distinguish from any other’s. The best way to do this has always been by ”adding value” to cheap raw materials — usually in the form of convenience or fortification.”

But just as every attempt to improve on the things God gave us fails, just as baby formula or highly-processed vegetable oils falls short, fortification or “enrichment” of devitalized foods also fall short. Keep in mind that with these processed foods, there is an element that cannot be duplicated in a food processing plant or laboratory — the living components. Michael Pollan went on to write in the same article:

It is not at all clear that the ”healthy” ingredients we’re isolating function in isolation the same way they do in whole foods. Already we’re finding that beta carotene extracted from carrots, or lycopene from tomatoes, don’t work nearly as well, if at all, outside the context of a carrot or a tomato. Even in the pages of Food Technology [a trade magazine for food scientists], you now find nutritionists cautioning the industry that ”a single-nutrient approach is too simplistic.”

Foods, it appears, are more than the sum of their chemical parts, and treating them as collections of nutrients to be mixed and matched, rather than as the complex biological systems they are, simply may not work.

Our goal should be then, not to eat a poor diet and rely on supplements that may or may not work to keep us healthy, but to eat a diet rich in vitamins and minerals the way God gave them to us, in living, whole foods. And if we feel that some supplementation is necessary, it should be viewed as just that, supplementation, not what we rely on to keep us healthy. Supplements taken should be researched diligently and only those of the highest quality should be consumed.

One important thing to note: while it is clear that there may be problems with vitamins and supplements, with the condition of our soil, the quality of our produce, and the environmental pollution we face on a daily basis, this is an option that should remain available for those that feel they must supplement. There is a move underway by our federal government to limit consumers’ access to vitamins by regulation, with some suggesting that supplements with certain levels of vitamins and minerals in them be available only by prescription. This should be resisted fully by Americans.

While vitamins may not be all consumers think they are, they are a far cry from prescription drugs, which kill more than 100,000 Americans and seriously injure an additional 2.1 million every year, and this is not even taking into account prescribing errors or drug abuse! (Based on a study by Dr. Bruce H. Pomeranz, principal investigator and a neuroscience professor at the University of Toronto, who analyzed 39 studies of hospital patients from 1966 to 1996.)