Vitamins Come to Dinner

Tommy and Jerry, “two little white rats who lived in the Norwich Biological Laboratory,” introduced children not only to nutrition but also to animal research at the company’s lab. (National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution)

Tommy and Jerry, “two little white rats who lived in the Norwich Biological Laboratory,” introduced children not only to nutrition but also to animal research at the company’s lab. (National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution)

Nutritionists adjusted recommendations further to account for the differing needs of infants, children, teens, pregnant and nursing women, and sedentary and active occupations. Behind the misleading simplification that 45,000,000 Americans faced vitamin starvation, however, lay the legitimate concerns of the Depression-era country: families with lower incomes had poorer diets in general, as did those who lived in towns and cities, away from farms’ ready supply of milk, eggs, and vegetables.

The National Nutrition Conference attendees were alarmed by the “inert calories” in the American diet, particularly in the forms of white bread and sugar. Modern flour refining had stripped bread of its natural vitamins and minerals, which in turn was stripping Americans of the strength they needed. As an immediate solution the conference gave its support to “enrichment” programs intended to restore certain foods to their “natural” (preprocessing) levels of nutrients. Flour enrichment had begun in the late 1930s as the B vitamins (thiamine and niacin) became available in bulk through industrial synthesis. But now, with national attention focused on the inadequacies of the American diet, progress accelerated, and the enrichment of flour and bread was largely accomplished through the voluntary cooperation of the milling industry, even before the War Food Administration mandated it in 1943.

Bread was not the first vitamin-enhanced product on the market. Vitamin D–fortified milk was introduced in the early 1930s, although fortification was accomplished mostly through irradiating milk with ultraviolet light rather than through the addition of bulk vitamins. Other fortified products appeared, such as Kellogg’s Pep, a breakfast cereal with added vitamins D and B1 that was introduced in 1938. New technologies allowed vitamins to be sprayed onto foods, such as the processed flakes that Americans ate for breakfast. The federal government, though, clearly distinguished between “enrichment,” which restored nutrients lost in processing, and “fortification,” in which vitamins could be added willy-nilly to almost any product.

Vimms and Vigor

By the early 1940s many vitamins were available in bulk at a fraction of the cost of a few years earlier, and proprietary commercial vitamins flourished. The cost of thiamine (B1), for example, dropped from $300 per gram in 1935, when it was first produced from natural sources; to $7.50 per gram in 1937, when it was synthesized; to 53 cents per gram in 1942.

The B vitamins in particular became the focus of vitamin anxiety and promise. Although B was one of the first vitamins recognized, it was little understood until the mid-1930s, when numerous components, including thiamine, niacin, riboflavin, B6, and calcium pentothenate, were isolated and synthesized. Studies of subclinical vitamin-B deficiency were vague and alarming: symptoms included fatigue and irritability, loss of appetite, nervousness, and even grey hair. Rumors spread that Hitler’s conquering forces induced vitamin-B deficiency in order to create dispirited, despondent populations. The “morale vitamin,” as it came to be called, seemed especially crucial to the well-being of the nation. Fortunately it was being pumped by the ton into breads and flour, and distributed in millions of vitamin pills with names like Vimms, Stams, and Benefax.

Advertisers made energetic promises for their vitamins. Vimms Vitamin Show, with Frank Sinatra, was popular on CBS radio, while advertisements for Stams (from Standard Brands) were heard on NBC’s Charlie McCarthy Show. “Take a minute, see what’s in it” ran one Vimms radio ad. “Make sure you get all the vitamins recommended by government experts.” Advertising in popular national magazines emphasized the B-complex vitamins as natural restorers of pep and vitality. Lists of the essential nutrients in multiple-vitamin formulations were advertised as the public grew more versed in vitamin science. Stams included five vitamins of the B complex, along with vitamins A, C, and D, and nine minerals, for an astounding seventeen ingredients. Manufacturers could boast that they met all the government’s minimum requirements for vitamins and often invoked the findings of “government experts and doctors” that revealed that three out of every four people suffered from “vitamin famine.” Celebrity endorsements were also part of marketing strategy. Paramount Picture stars like Betty Hutton (“I’m Hep to Pep!”) and Veronica Lake (“Preserve Your Verve!”) apparently owed their sparkle to Bexel B-complex vitamins.