Vitamins are organic compounds essential for growth and activity in small amounts. Dietary supplements are minerals, herbs, and vitamins taken to help increase nutritional intake and daily food consumption. Today, American consumers spend millions of dollars each year on vitamins and supplements that promise everything from sexual vigor and increased body mass to clear complexions and more youthful skin. Indeed, today’s hope in a jar is often a magic pill or supplement that touts scientific authority.
The use of minerals, health supplements, and vitamins stretches back to the herbal remedies of the Sumerian, Chinese, and Greek societies. European apothecaries and Native American medicine men were the predecessors to the modern herbalist. In the late 1880s, experiments were conducted to determine the purpose of vitamins and how they affected the body. Scurvy became one of the first diseases viewed as a vitamin deficiency disease. The lack of a micronutrient was determined to be the cause of scurvy, as physicians realized that the intake of citrus fruits would eliminate the deadly disease’s effects. Continued research led medical doctors to conclude that vitamin B deficiency caused the disease known as beriberi. Other vitamins and minerals would soon be discovered and would lead to a compiled list of the essential micronutrients known today, including their effects on the body. By the early 1900s, American businesses began to mass market vitamins and beauty supplements.
During the early 20th century, scientists began to associate vitamins with an array of remarkable cures. The focus was primarily on health concerns compounded by war, poverty, and the effects of modern food processing, which threatened healthy diets. Advertisers and manufacturers, however, quickly played to middleclass consumers, who were unlikely to be suffering from any real deficiencies. Nevertheless, the tenets of scientific motherhood ensured that middle-class female authority was based on running the household and that included understanding nutritional needs such as what vitamins and foods her family needed. From Cream of Wheat breakfast cereal to a daily dose of Squibb’s Cod Liver Oil, advertisements in the early 20th century successfully mixed fear with scientific discourse to ensure their products became part of a family’s day-to-day consumption.
Manufacturers soon made the leap from concerns over the family’s health to personal beauty. In 1937 Vitamins Plus, a mixture that included vitamins, liver extract, and iron, was sold to middle-class female consumers, but this time through the department store cosmetic counter. A month’s supply cost a little less than three dollars and, according to the advertisements, it helped a woman’s makeup stay in place, her hair to hold a curl, and her nail polish to resist chipping. At the same time, vitamin D soap was advertised to reduce wrinkles, blackheads, and pimples. From cures for acne to anti-aging, beauty and health would make profits for vitamins and supplements manufacturers, who continued to insist what they were hawking was scientifically proven. With all the false claims, when in the 1960s and ’70s a derivative of vitamin A, retinoic acid, was discovered to be a successful treatment for acne, it was celebrated as an iconic moment. Marketed as Retin-A by Johnson and Johnson, the skin care product was not only effective in diminishing acne, but also helped smooth skin texture and reduce some signs of aging.
Since the 1990s, there has been increasing interest in vitamins and herbal supplements for health and beauty. Hormones and steroids were included in the definition of dietary supplements when potential uses for weight loss (synephrine), regulating sleep function (melatonin), anti-aging (estrogen), and muscle maintenance (creatine) were discovered. Whether the prolonged use of hormones or their derivatives is safe is controversial and debated by scientists; many health studies continue to study them for their beneficial effects. The herbal market extends into natural supplements produced or isolated from plant extracts or herbs. Phytotherapy is highly popular in European markets, and is still practiced among modern apothecaries. In underdeveloped regions, plant derivatives are often the only form of pharmaceutical applications still in use. General Nutrition Center (GNC) is an example of the many nutrition companies that sell health supplements. This company began selling in health food stores and is now commonly found in malls.
Vitamins have found their niche in the diet as cofactors for enzymes and micronutrients that the body cannot make on its own. These include vitamin A, E, K, D, and the B complexes. Most vitamins are provided by bacteria or normal daily food intake. Minerals and metals like zinc and iron are usually only taken in prescribed amounts for deficiencies, but are commonly found in multivitamins. Herbal supplements are commonly used in place or as the source of essential micronutrients. The organic compounds are digested by the body more easily than chemically synthesized drugs. Hormones and proteins are continually used in bodybuilding and for chemical imbalances, such as in stress relief and sleeping aids; they are also used to ease the effects of menopause and stunted growth. Vitamins and supplements can be found for weight loss (green tea, chromium picolinate), skin treatments (vitamin E), antioxidants (CoQ), acne treatment (Echinacea), sexual enhancement (ginseng), and gender-specific treatments (pomegranate extract for prostate care). Honey, cinnamon, eucalyptus, garlic, and ginger are a few of the many food supplements used for skin treatments or herbal medicines. The market has been so diverse and expanded that a health or beauty supplement can be found for practically any condition.
Scientists, however, especially those not promoting their own products, often question the effects of many of the supplements and other products, such as crèmes, sold on the market today and even warn that many of them are unproven or unsafe. For example, excessive amounts of vitamin D and E can be dangerous. One of the more recent trends (although something that was practiced in the ancient world) is the use of healthy foods transformed into miracle creams. Brands such as Origins, for example, boast the creations of Dr. Andrew Weil, who uses mushrooms, ginger, and turmeric, as well as other food stuffs. Similarly tomatoes, spinach, pumpkin, cucumbers, and chili peppers have all found their way into cosmetic lines. How much of a nutrient can be absorbed through the skin is debated. Even more problematic, some medical professionals note that skin allergies are quite common, and foodstuffs applied to the body can often be the culprit. Nevertheless, cosmetic counters, grocery stores, and specialized businesses like GNC provide outlets for many nutrition companies who supply and sell beauty supplements that attempt to blur beauty and health benefits.