Vitamins: fixing health, morality and security since 1911. Photo: Flickr/Steven Depolo
Show Hide image

From moral guidance to national security: vitamins have always been used to sell food

Often beyond the realms of common sense, vitamins have become the most effective sales tool in food marketing.

Today, the word “vitamin” is so familiar to us that it’s easy to assume that it’s always been a part of our nutritional vocabulary. But in reality, the word was only coined in 1911, at a time when many scientists still doubted whether the 13 dietary chemicals we know as vitamins actually existed.

The man who came up with it was a Polish biochemist named Casimir Funk, who was studying beriberi, a disease now known to be caused by a deficiency in thiamine (otherwise known as vitamin B1). Funk never succeeded in chemically isolating thiamine -- that didn’t happen until 1926 – but he nonetheless invented a name for the category of chemical compounds he hypothesised might be responsible for preventing nutritional deficiency diseases. He mashed up “vita”, the Latin word for “life”, with “amine”, the type of chemical compound that he assumed they would all turn out to be, and introduced the word “vitamine”, as it was then spelled, to the public.  

It eventually turned out that not all “vitamines” were amines; in fact, there is no precise chemical definition of a vitamin at all. But the word “vitamine” proved so appealing to food marketers and the public that this semantic reality didn’t stop its spread. In the Twenties, the “e” got lopped off to turn it into “vitamin,” and since then, the word’s popularity and power have only grown.

“The food manufacturers have discovered a new language,” wrote one nutritional chemist in a 1929 issue of the American magazine Good Housekeeping. “Old staples that you and I bought because we liked the taste and found them ‘filling’ are now appearing in the advertising pages with new appeals to attention. They’re rich in vitamins! Apparently that statement ought to be enough to make us open our pocket-books and purchase forthwith.”

Vitamin C “cannot be stored in the body longer than 24 hours”, warned one ad for Sunkist lemons. “It is essential that it be replenished daily.” Manufacturers of cod liver oil, which is a natural source of vitamin D, began referring to it as “bottled sunshine”, came up with a mint-flavored version, and advertised its supposed ability to give babies “well shaped heads.” (For the record, cod liver actually is an excellent natural source of vitamins A and D. It also, unfortunately, tastes like cod liver oil).

Iceberg lettuce, which is essentially water in leaf form, became “Nature’s Concentrated Sunshine”; bananas were a “natural vitality food.” Ralston Wheat Cereal put “the B1 in Breakfast.” “New research” suggested it was probably a good idea to “start or end One Meal a Day with Canned Pineapple”. If you didn’t want to risk vitamin starvation (“a danger that gives no warning!”) you’d better eat Del Monte “vitamin-protected” canned foods. Schlitz Sunshine Vitamin D Beer launched in 1936 with the tagline: “Beer is good for you . . . but SCHLITZ, the beer with Sunshine Vitamin D, is extra good for you.”

By the time the first synthetic vitamins became available in the Thirties and Forties, consensus was gathering around the idea that inadequate nutrition – including vitamin deficiencies – could affect not just people’s health status, but their personalities. As far back as 1927, Grape-Nuts had run an ad suggesting that poor nutrition could put children at risk of “unfortunate personality traits” including self-centeredness, shyness, lack of confidence, selfishness, jealousy, depression, and self-pity.

Now, however, it wasn’t just food marketers making these assertions. In 1942, the American chemist Roger Williams proclaimed in his acceptance speech for Columbia University’s prestigious Chandler Medal that “[t]here can be no doubt that much dullness on the part of school children, particularly among the lower-income groups, can be traced in part to a lack of the proper kind of food and specifically to the lack of enough vitamins. . . . Since an ample supply of vitamins can foster a higher intelligence in human subjects, it also has the capability of fostering morality”. Vitamins weren’t just essential for physical health; they were taking on a mental and moral dimension as well.

They were also considered essential to national security. In America, “Food Will Win the War” had been a popular World War I slogan. But as a 1941 article in the New York Times argued, for World War II, the word “Food” should be swapped with “Vitamins.” Americans, concerned that their young men were being weakened by (supposed) vitamin deficiencies, spread rumours that the Nazis were keeping their subjects under subjugation by destroying vitamins in their conquered nations’ foods. Across the Atlantic, the British Royal Air Force started a rumour that it was feeding carrots (a source of vitamin A) to its night pilots to hide from the Germans the true reason for their improved accuracy in the dark: radar.

Today, some 75 years later, many of these claims might sound preposterous. But in reality, we are still vulnerable to outrageous advertisements, whether they’re about new dietary supplements or the latest nutrients du jour. Like our predecessors, we too are desperate for easy answers. We too are driven by hope and faith. As a result, we allow vitamins – and the modern marketing tactics that they helped inspire – to make us believe claims that would otherwise crack under the pressure of common sense.

Catherine Price is the author of The Vitamin Complex: Our Obsessive Quest for Nutritional Perfection, published by Oneworld

Getty
Show Hide image

Want to send a positive Brexit message to Europe? Back Arsene Wenger for England manager

Boris Johnson could make a gesture of goodwill. 

It is hard not to feel some sympathy for Sam Allardyce, who coveted the England job for so many years, before losing it after playing just a single match. Yet Allardyce has only himself to blame and the Football Association were right to move quickly to end his tenure.

There are many candidates for the job. The experience of Alan Pardew and the potential of Eddie Howe make them strong contenders. The FA's reported interest in Ralf Rangner sent most of us scurrying to Google to find out who the little known Leipzig manager is. But the standout contender is Arsenal's French boss Arsene Wenger, 

Would England fans accept a foreign manager? The experience of Sven Goran-Eriksson suggests so, especially when the results are good. Nobody complained about having a Swede in charge the night that England won 5-1 in Munich, though Sven's sides never won the glittering prizes, the Swede proving perhaps too rigidly English in his commitment to the 4-4-2 formation.

Fabio Capello's brief stint was less successful. He never seemed happy in the English game, preferring to give interviews in Italian. That perhaps contributed to his abrupt departure, falling out with his FA bosses after he seemed unable to understand why allegations of racial abuse by the England captain had to be taken seriously by the governing body.

Arsene Wenger could not be more different. Almost unknown when he arrived to "Arsene Who?" headlines two decades ago, he became as much part of North London folklore as all-time great Arsenal and Spurs bosses, Herbert Chapman or Bill Nicholson, his own Invicibles once dominating the premier league without losing a game all season. There has been more frustration since the move from Highbury to the Emirates, but Wenger's track record means he ranks among the greatest managers of the last hundred years - and he could surely do a job for England.

Arsene is a European Anglophile. While the media debate whether or not the FA Cup has lost its place in our hearts, Wenger has no doubt that its magic still matters, which may be why his Arsenal sides have kept on winning it so often. Wenger manages a multinational team but England's football traditions have certainly got under his skin. The Arsenal boss has changed his mind about emulating the continental innovation of a winter break. "I would cry if you changed that", he has said, citing his love of Boxing Day football as part of the popular tradition of English football.

Obviously, the FA must make this decision on football grounds. It is an important one to get right. Fifty years of hurt still haven't stopped us dreaming, but losing to Iceland this summer while watching Wales march to the semi-finals certainly tested any lingering optimism. Wenger was as gutted as anybody. "This is my second country. I was absolutely on my knees when we lost to Iceland. I couldn't believe it" he said.

The man to turn things around must clearly be chosen on merit. But I wonder if our new Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson - albeit more of a rugger man himself - might be tempted to quietly  suggest in the corridors of footballing power that the appointment could play an unlikely role in helping to get the mood music in place which would help to secure the best Brexit deal for Britain, and for Europe too.

Johnson does have one serious bit of unfinished business from the referendum campaign: to persuade his new boss Theresa May that the commitments made to European nationals in Britain must be honoured in full.  The government should speed up its response and put that guarantee in place. 

Nor should that commitment to 3m of our neighbours and friends be made grudgingly.

So Boris should also come out and back Arsene for the England job, as a very good symbolic way to show that we will continue to celebrate the Europeans here who contribute so much to our society.

British negotiators will be watching the twists and turns of the battle for the Elysee Palace, to see whether Alain Juppe, Nicolas Sarkozy end up as President. It is a reminder that other countries face domestic pressures over the negotiations to come too. So the political negotiations will be tough - but we should make sure our social and cultural relations with Europe remain warm.

More than half of Britons voted to leave the political structures of the European Union in June. Most voters on both sides of the referendum had little love of the Brussels institutions, or indeed any understanding of what they do.

But how can we ensure that our European neighbours and friends understand and hear that this was no rejection of them - and that so many of the ways that we engage with our fellow Europeans rom family ties to foreign holidays, the European contributions to making our society that bit better - the baguettes and cappuccinos, cultural links and sporting heroes remain as much loved as ever.

We will see that this weekend when nobody in the golf clubs will be asking who voted Remain and who voted Leave as we cheer on our European team - seven Brits playing in the twelve-strong side, alongside their Spanish, Belgian, German, Irish and Swedish team-mates.

And now another important opportunity to get that message across suddenly presents itself.

Wenger for England. What better post-Brexit commitment to a new Entente Cordiale could we possibly make?

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.