Too Much of a Good Thing?: Veganism and the Triumph of the Vitamin Industry


Veganism is on the rise. Bring in the greens, throw out the meats! According the Guardian, the number of vegans in the UK has risen by a staggering 350% in a mere ten years. This changing lifestyle has influenced a spike in awareness particularly regarding vitamin supplements needed to sustain a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle. The Internet is littered with hundreds of articles touting the “Top 10 Vitamins Every Vegan Should Take,” featuring an assortment of colorful pills advertising benefits that seem a bit inflated even to an ordinary reader. It seems convincing enough…why not try it?

With this trend, the market has been saturated with various types of these supplements, all claiming to increase immunity, diet, and wellbeing. However, the spike the vitamin industry has gotten from the millions of new vegans and health conscious eaters has a shadowy history that explains the industry’s steady and positive growth through time.

The history of the vitamin industry is one of disputed science, broad propositions, and legal loopholes. According to The Atlantic, the vitamin craze of today had its origins in the 70s, when Linus Pauling, renowned scientist, declared confidently that vitamin C “would cause a 10% decrease in deaths from cancer.” Another study, featuring his paper, Vitamin C and the Common Cold, directed people everywhere to increase the current recommended dosage of vitamin C by an astounding 5,000%. The result in the vitamin industry was jaw dropping. Called “the Linus Pauling effect,” vitamin sales skyrocketed despite further studies that disproved that overly high dosages of vitamin C improved health in any way.

However, Pauling wasn’t stopped. He continued to make extravagant claims about the benefits of vitamins, producing a laundry list of ailments that could be cured by high doses of vitamin C including, to quote The Atlantic, “heart disease, mental illness, pneumonia, hepatitis, polio, tuberculosis, measles, mumps, chickenpox, meningitis, shingles, fever blisters, cold sores, canker sores, warts, aging, allergies, asthma, arthritis, diabetes, retinal detachment, strokes, ulcers, shock, typhoid fever, tetanus, dysentery, whooping cough, leprosy, hay fever, burns, fractures, wounds, heat prostration, altitude sickness, radiation poisoning, glaucoma, kidney failure, influenza, bladder ailments, stress, rabies, and snakebites.”          

On the contrary, vitamins have proven to be harmful in the quantities Pauling advocated. According to a study conducted by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, “those who took vitamins and supplements were dying from cancer and heart disease at rates 28 and 17 percent higher, respectively, than those who didn't.”

So what’s the craze about vitamins really about, and why haven’t vitamin sales felt the effect of this real, tested science? According to The Economist, legal drama caused the vitamin industry to let go of the set-in-stone claims it had proudly held on to earlier. However, this has resulted in the industry using broader and “vaguer” claims. An example according to The Economist is a vitamin supplement that “supports a healthy heart” rather than “cures heart disease.” Another, according to TIME, “promotes positive mood balance,” instead of advertising (falsely) that it cures depression.

Strategies like this one are employed brilliantly by the giants of the vitamin industry. By using these nebulous descriptions of health, they reduce suspicions and promote an overall picture of wellbeing. The simplicity and regularity that taking vitamins allows us to have has only bolstered the industry’s burgeoning sales despite the cover ups and fraudulent science that supported the industry in its earlier years.

There’s no doubt that the rise in the number of vegans worldwide will benefit the vitamin industry. But the real question lies in how far these health-conscious individuals will go to ensure their heath is in good hands. It’ll be up to them to decide whether the “Top 10 Vitamins” are really essential to a vegan diet or whether it’s all an elaborate play the vitamin industry has been showing, on repeat, for years.