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