The Dirty World of Vitamin Supplements


Go to the supermarket and you will see a hundred thousand bazillion bottles of vitamin supplements staring down at you from countless shelves. Vitamins A, B, C, D and the rest of the alphabet. Have you ever asked yourself where these vitamins come from? If you’ve pictured a Willy Wonka style factory where Umpa Loompa’s squeeze Vitamin C from orange slices and harvest Vitamin D from the sun, then you couldn’t be more wrong. In fact, vitamins are chemically synthesized from such horrendous things as mineral ores, fungi, petroleum and bacteria. The process creates a terrible amount of pollution, and until recently was overseen by a price fixing cartel that was only taken down in 1999. Vitamins: good for you, not so good for the world?

Starting in January 1, 1942, the FDA ordered flour mills to begin enriching their white flour with vitamins. Why? Because up until that point, thousands of people were dying from such diseases as beriberi, pellagra, spina bifida, night-blindness, scurvy and more. All of these diseases came about as a result of vitamin deficiency, and the FDA decided that the simplest way to combat them was to enrich flour with vitamins. Flour was common, ubiquitous, cheap to enrich and cheap to purchase. Perfect.

But where did these vitamins come from? In 1912 Polish biochemist Casimir Funk (Dr. Funk to his party friends) coined the name, ‘vital amines’ while trying to cure beriberi by figuring out why people who ate brown rice were immune to beriberi, while those who ate white, weren’t. All 13 vitamins were discovered by 1948, and capable of being synthesized by 1972. It took that long because it’s actually really hard to synthesize them. There’s a Tom Clancy kind of shadow world behind vitamin production, with patents, secrets, and millions of dollars spent in developing them. Cutting edge bio-tech and genetic engineering are essential, and the process is agonizingly slow to perfect. Everything is so hush-hush that it’s impossible to get anybody to say who makes what and how, leaving the manufacturing process a mystery. Even stranger, the companies that make vitamins are multinationals, and change so fast that even they don’t know, or can’t speak with authority on whom makes what.

This mystery and obfuscation were used by the multinationals as a smokescreen behind which they could start a price-fixing scheme. In 1999, the six largest vitamin companies that controlled 80% of the world’s vitamin production were accused of price-fixing, and billion dollar settlements led to a major reorganization of the market. Some companies folded, others merged, and some, like the largest, Roche, were sold off. There followed a huge drop in prices (ranging from 70 to 80%). Between the drop in prices and the settlement penalties, vitamin production was no longer sufficiently profitable for Western companies. Throw in stricter restrictions on pollution production, and it makes sense that the business has shifted overseas to China and India, where they can be produced without regard for the environment, and then funneled into the West via smaller companies that serve as intermediaries.

So there you have it. The vast, baffling, and dirty industry that produces vitamins. Better to just go get them from a glass of Shakeology, fruit, natural food and sunlight? You bet.