Vitamins Come to Dinner

Visitors attempt to decipher the complex chemistry of vitamin B1 synthesis at public exhibits in the 1950s. (National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution)

Visitors attempt to decipher the complex chemistry of vitamin B1 synthesis at public exhibits in the 1950s. (National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution)

“Vitamins for Pep!”

In 1920 Parke, Davis and Company launched Metagen, a five-grain (325 mg) capsule of “Concentrated Vitamine Extracts,” purportedly containing all the then-known vitamins—fat-soluble A, water-soluble B, and water-soluble C. Reporting on the new preparation, the Western Medical Times set forth a rationale for multivitamins that continues to resonate today: “This is the age of canned foods, polished rice, artificial butter [margarine], condensed milk, white flour and other refinements of our twentieth-century civilization, all of which make for convenience, perhaps, but their general use presents a problem in nutrition.”

Parke-Davis was an established pharmaceutical firm with its own research laboratory and scientists. Products like Metagen, intended to be prescribed by a doctor, were advertised to the medical profession. But other vitamin products also appeared, produced by patent or proprietary medicine makers who pitched the pills directly to the consumer. These manufacturers, who were often just businessmen, were not beholden to the ethical guidelines of the American Medical Association (AMA), which allowed drugs to be advertised only to doctors. 

Promises of improved health and vitality aimed directly at the public created a great demand for vitamin preparations. One product, Mastin’s Vitamon Tablets, contained all three known vitamins along with iron, calcium, and phosphorus, making it perhaps the first multiple vitamin-and-mineral tablet on the market. Its proprietor, Francis B. Mastin, was an energetic advertiser who reportedly turned his product into a $1 million-a-month business in less than a year. Advertisements and testimonials promised Vitamon would “improve the appetite, aid indigestion, correct constipation, clear the skin, and increase energy.” Ad copy particularly emphasized the message “Vitamins for Pep!” an association that would stick with vitamin supplements for decades to come.

The AMA and federal food and drug regulators did not support the sale of these commercial vitamins. Consumers were seen as easily duped into buying worthless, perhaps even harmful, products. Regulators had difficulty deciding where vitamins fit in: were they a food or a drug? In addition the medical profession felt threatened by decision making that bypassed its authority. Some nutrition scientists and educators like McCollum were adamant in their disapproval of vitamin supplements, believing that vitamin needs were best provided through a balanced diet of wholesome foods. Although regulators eventually succeeded in instituting some labeling requirements and prosecuting the most exaggerated claims, vitamins and other dietary substances have remained part of a relatively open market in which decisions are left to the consumer.

The first vitamin pill to obtain the approval of the AMA was Oscodal, a sugar-coated tablet of vitamin A and D made from cod-liver oil using a process developed by Funk in the early 1920s. At the time, technical difficulties and the expense of extracting other vitamins from natural sources made them an inefficient proposition. That situation changed as pharmaceutical companies further developed their own research facilities and forged ties with academic laboratories. By the eve of World War II the pharmaceutical industry had learned to synthesize vitamins on an industrial scale; production was measured by the ton, and the country was poised to supply the nutritional needs of the entire world.

Are We Well Fed?

In 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt summoned the National Nutrition Conference for Defense to address the inadequacies of the American diet. “In recent years,” he wrote, “scientists have made outstanding discoveries as to the amounts and kinds of foods needed for maximum health and vigor. Yet every survey of nutrition, by whatever methods conducted, showed that here in the United States undernourishment is widespread and serious.”

The studies leading to this dire conclusion were based on surveys of family eating and spending habits carried out by government agencies in the mid-1930s. By then the nutrient content of various foods was known. Early 1941 saw the first table of recommended dietary allowances (RDAs), which included the daily requirements for six vitamins and two minerals, expressed in milligrams and international units. With these tools in hand the American diet was scrutinized and found to be lacking.

The Bureau of Home Economics, in the publication Are We Well Fed?: A Report on the Diets of Families in the U.S., concluded that only one-fourth of families in the United States enjoyed a diet that could be classified as “good.”A diet qualified as good if it exceeded by 50% the minimum requirements set for all seven nutrients studied—protein, iron, calcium, and the four vitamins. These calculations were based on a mixture of animal and human studies. For example, rats were used in controlled feeding experiments to measure vitamin A in test foods, while human needs for vitamin A were based on studies of people that measured the amount of the vitamin necessary to prevent night blindness, one of the first recognizable signs of deficiency. Scientists used the results from a handful of human subjects and the rat-based assays to determine the quantity of food, such as milk, eggs, and leafy greens, required to meet the vitamin needs of people.