The presence of vitamins in food was not discovered until the early 1900s, and since then humans have been trying to find a way to reproduce them in pill form.
The craze for vitamin pills began to take off in the 1960s, with many dreaming that it could keep humans healthy.
“There was this utopian dream that we could just eat white bread and then take vitamins and everyone would have perfect health,” science educator Dr Derek Muller told news.com.au.
But despite their growing popularity — which has seen them added to almost everything, including water — science is starting to rethink their value.
Dr Muller, who is the creator of popular YouTube channel Veritasium, has investigated vitamins and whether they really are good for humans in a new documentary Vitamania: The Sense And Nonsense Of Vitamins .
“For me, the interest in vitamins goes back to seeing products like vitamin water and vitamin gum coming on to the market,” he said.
“I thought, ‘This is just absurd.’ It’s like they were using the veneer of science as a marketing tool. As a scientist I found that absurd and I want everyone to think more critically about it.”
Dr Muller is not out to debunk vitamins and he said they can improve people’s health in some cases.
One clear example of this is the Perth boy who almost went blind because of his fussy eating habits — he wouldn’t eat anything except chicken, potatoes, bread and Coke — which led to a vitamin A deficiency.
“Even in this day and age we can be lacking vitamins in our bodies and this can have a debilitating effect,” Dr Muller said.
“But the big question is, should we be taking vitamin pills at all?”
Dr Muller explores this question in his documentary, which will be screened in sessions around Australia between July 28 and August 3.
“There was this wishful thinking we could have perfect nutrition, but if you look at an apple — which has many different phytochemicals — the concept that we can distil the molecules we need and just take those was the wrong approach,” he said. “It’s a humbling exercise for science.”
In fact, it has been found that eating fruit and vegetables is much better than taking a pill with a single vitamin because it’s often the combination of compounds found in an apple, for example, that creates the health benefits.
“Food has so much more in it than just those particular molecules,” Dr Muller said. “The idea of just taking vitamins is kind of silly. In truth, vitamins have always come from our food.
“The right thing to do is to get all your vitamins from your food. While this is not always possible, it just makes you think more about your diet than your medicine cabinet.”
Nowadays, Dr Muller said there were about 85,000 vitamin products on the market and people spent about $100 billion on vitamin supplements around the world.
“We are looking at one billion people who regularly take vitamins or supplements — that’s a lot,” Dr Muller said.
Things like folate are even added to commercial white bread in Australia to ensure women are getting this vitamin, which is essential for the development of healthy babies, before they realise they are pregnant.
Dr Muller didn’t look specifically at the harmful impacts of excess vitamin consumption but said there’s no question hype around vitamins could be dangerous.
For example some people think vitamin C can cure cancer, despite there being no scientific evidence to back this.
“I believe in America there’s about 10,000 people treating themselves with intravenous vitamin C and some of them are trying to cure cancer,” Dr Muller said.
“There are doctors trying to work out if vitamin C is helpful in curing cancer but the truth is we don’t know and there’s not a lot of promising data.
“Meanwhile there are 10,000 people injecting themselves, which can be toxic.”
Even the idea that vitamin C could cure the common cold had pretty much been debunked.
“It has almost no effect,” he said. “At best, zinc mixed with vitamin C may reduce a cold by half a day.”
But vitamin C has been proven in the past to be effective at curing certain conditions.
Citrus fruits began to be stocked on ships after Dr James Lind noted they prevented scurvy.
“The Royal Navy decided to start putting lemon juice on board ships, then Britain starts to dominate the seas,” Dr Muller said.
“In a way the whole shape of the globe comes back to our understanding of vitamins.”
The next frontier looks to be space exploration as scientists grapple with how to keep humans healthy on long journeys to planets like Mars.
“That trip takes five years — this is the ultimate voyage. Compare that to the 30 days it took for Columbus (to sail to America).
“How do you keep people healthy? What are you going to do to ensure their nutrition and (they) thrive in space? It’s a fascinating question.”
Dr Muller said his main aim was to get people to think more critically about vitamins.
“Without vitamins we get sick and we can die — they are powerful substances,” he said.
“But they have this marketing halo, so that anywhere they’re mentioned, people think it’s good.
“I want us to be more nuanced in our understanding of these substances.”