History of vitamin and supplement advertising: Proof that nothing is original
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Which one would you want to eat — “lab-grown” meat or “cultivated” meat?
If you’d prefer to take a bite out of a “cultivated meat” burger, you’re in the majority. “Lab-grown meat” sounds like a science experiment, whereas “cultivated meat” is something that comes from a picturesque farm.
How brands position and talk about cultivated meat — meat that was grown from animal stem cells — will in part flow from how it’s regulated. In the United States, regulators aren’t sure how to classify cultivated meat. Is it science or is it food? The answer matters because the FDA regulates foods that are the product of cell culture, whereas meat is regulated by USDA.
In 2018, the FDA and USDA announced they were prepared to tackle regulation together via a joint public meeting on use of animal cell culture technology. In 2020, the USDA, FDA, in addition to the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) announced a formal agreement to jointly oversee the regulation of cultivated meat.
While many advocates are salivating over regulatory progress, the step forward doesn’t yet do much to clarify whether cultivated meat is science or food. And we’ll need to know soon, because it’s full steam ahead for companies like Upside Foods, Eat Just, BlueNalu, and many others who are making cultivated meat cheaper by the day. Producers will need to know how to label their products, and consumers will need to know what they’re putting in their bodies.
The consequences of regulatory confusion: Are vitamins medicine or food?
If we were to base our hopes for cultivated meat regulation on the vitamin industry, we may feel discouraged as consumers.
Vitamins and supplements have been in regulation purgatory since they were first developed in the early 20th century. At first because of lack of knowledge, then because of lobbying, vitamins and supplements have never been subject to the same regulatory requirements as other health products. Unlike cultivated meat, vitamins have enjoyed their status as a food item under the FDA for many decades — which means that producers have no legal obligation to prove whether they’re safe or effective before putting them on the market.
Most Americans don’t know this — which is by design. Vitamin companies have been advertising the questionable benefits of supplements for a century without much oversight to how they do it. From Mastin’s Vitamon Tablets promising “pep” in the 1920s to Instagram-cool supplements promising “more energy” today, we’ve come full circle on the self-care carousel when it comes to marketing vitamins and supplements.
Keep reading for a comprehensive marketing history on the industry category that refuses to be categorized for what it is.
The discovery of vitamins amidst worsening nutrition in the United States
Polish-born biochemist Casimir Funk coined the term “vitamine” in 1912 when he discovered that a certain disease was caused by something that was missing from the body rather than something that had invaded it.
“Diseases of deficiency” were the basis of early research on vitamins. When Funk proved that beriberi, a disease that affects the heart and nervous system, was caused by a vitamin deficiency, he surmised that other diseases such as scurvy and rickets were also caused by missing nutrients.
The following year in 1913, American biochemist Elmer Vernon McCollum would isolate and identify the first vitamin through his research on the dietary needs of cows. Since he couldn’t perform tests on a large enough sample of cows, McCollum used rats to perform controlled dietary studies. His research focused specifically on fats, and he noticed that when he fed the rats butter and egg yolks, they thrived. This is how McCollum eventually identified a vitamin he called “fat-soluble factor A” — now known as just “vitamin A”.
Funk and McCollum would take turns discovering vitamins over the next few years, with Funk isolating vitamins B and C to prevent beriberi and scurvy, respectively, and McCollum and his associate Nina Simmonds isolating vitamin D to prevent rickets in the early 1920s.
While Funk and McCollum were conducting nutritional research that would save millions of lives over the following decades, the general population in the United States was eating more poorly. Innovations in food production for a growing urban population during the last half of the nineteenth century led to more processed foods like polished rice, margarine, condensed milk, and refined flour — all foods that were less nutritious than their unprocessed versions.
The discovery of vitamins happened just as public health experts were growing concerned over the status of the average American’s teeth, muscles, and bones. While Funk and McCollum’s research was focused on diseases of deficiency, it wasn’t a leap for medical professionals to think that vitamins could improve poor diets and ultimately prevent diseases in the first place.
In 1920, Parke-Davis, a pharmaceutical firm that’s now a subsidiary of Pfizer, launched Metagen, a 325mg capsule of “Concentrated Vitamine Extracts” that contained what was then called “fat-soluble A”, “water-soluble B”, and “water-soluble C” — vitamins A, B, and C. People couldn’t get the multivitamin from a store, though — it was prescribed by a doctor and advertised to doctors, not to the general public.
The first vitamin to get the American Medical Association’s stamp of approval, however, wasn’t Metagen — it was Ocscodal, developed by Casimir Funk himself after he moved from Great Britain to the United States, where he worked at Metz pharmaceutical house. The tablet contained vitamin A and D from naturally sourced cod-liver oil, which hadn’t yet been synthesized.
Unfortunately Funk’s process for developing the vitamin was expensive and technical, which meant it wasn’t fit for business — but that didn’t stop entrepreneurs from stepping in anyway.
Mastin’s Vitamon Tablets: Promising pep and all the other things
Technical difficulties and expensive medical equipment didn’t deter entrepreneurs from selling vitamins doctors didn’t approve of. As soon as vitamins entered public consciousness as a potential solution to poor health, folks in business were ready to capitalize on “quick fix” solutions for every health complaint under the sun.
Mastin’s Vitamon Tablets, containing all three discovered vitamins and iron, calcium, and phosphorus, claimed to solve everything and nothing at the same time. Developed by Francis B. Mastin, who wasn’t a doctor, Mastin’s Vitamon Tablets were some of the first vitamins advertised in any significant way to the public. In less than a year, Mastin grew his business to $1 million per month in revenue, mostly through full page magazine ads that promised his supplements could “improve the appetite, aid indigestion, correct constipation, clear the skin, and increase energy.”
Mastin’s Vitamon Tablets ran separate ads for men and women. For men, Mastin claimed to “strengthen the nerves and invigorate the body”, whereas the tablets would make women “look years younger” by giving them “healthy firm flesh”.
While doctors and the American Medical Association didn’t approve of Mastin’s vitamins, it didn’t much matter. Vitamins were so new that regulators hadn’t yet decided whether they were a drug or a food, and businesses were allowed free reign with their messaging while the government took its time deciding.
Nutrition scientists like McCollum were vocal about how the average person didn’t need vitamins if they didn’t suffer from a deficiency disease, but Mastin’s ads were louder and in more places people directed their attention, like magazines. If anything, demand for vitamin supplements would only increase over the next two decades as pharmaceutical companies improved upon McCollum’s expensive and complex production methods.
Vitamin synthesizing: A price drop-induced market bonanza
Sometimes all it takes for a product to take off is one scientific innovation that makes it cheaper to produce. For computers, it was transistors. For genetic testing kits, it was human genome sequencing. For vitamins, it was lab synthesizing.
Vitamins are either derived from plant or animal sources or they’re synthesized in a lab. For example, Casimir Funk’s Ocscodal tablet contained vitamin A derived from cod liver oil, and he originally derived vitamin C from citrus fruit. But that process is expensive, and to this day most vitamin manufacturers don’t produce their supplements this way. Instead they synthesize them in a lab, getting vitamin A from acetone and vitamin C from keto acid. Once you have the end product, there’s no chemical difference between synthesized vitamins and ones derived from plant or animal sources.
In the 1930s and 1940s, vitamin B gained a lot of attention when rumors spread that Hitler induced vitamin B deficiency to weaken conquered populations. (The claim hasn’t been verified, but it probably doesn’t need to — war-induced famine starved many populations during WWII, and Hitler probably wasn’t thinking about vitamin B specifically.) Around that same time, scientists succeeded in synthesizing vitamin B’s many components, including thiamine, niacin, riboflavin, B6, and calcium pantothenate.
In 1935, thiamine (vitamin B1) cost the consumer $300 per gram when it was still derived from natural sources. In 1937, after vitamin B1 was first synthesized, the price dropped to $7.50 per gram, only to fall off a cliff to $0.53 in 1942.
As vitamin prices continued to reduce as each compound was synthesized, vitamin producers flooded the market. The hype was further fueled by the 1941 publication of The Bureau of Home Economics’ Are We Well Fed?: A Report on the Diets of Families in the U.S., which showed that only 25% of American families in the United States were eating a diet that was considered “good” by recently developed nutritional standards.
Suddenly people were obsessed with nutrition — and their radios. As WWII wreaked havoc overseas, Americans were glued to their radio as much as some of us are now glued to Joe Rogan’s podcast. Except back then ivermectin hadn’t yet been identified — listeners had to hear Frank Sinatra talking about Vimms vitamins instead.
Sponsored by Vimms vitamins, The Frank Sinatra Show debuted on January 5, 1944, nearly two years before the end of WWII. During every show, listeners could expect to hear Sinatra wax lyrical about Vimms vitamins, which he insisted “contain all the vitamins that government experts and doctors agree are essential in the diet.” What he left out was that most doctors recommended that people get their vitamins from their diet, not supplements.
You can hear Vimms anticipate this argument through Sinatra as he starts talking about summer versus winter meals. Without further explanation, Sinatra says “iron is most frequently deficient in summer meals”, as if every person in America went vegan as soon as the weather warmed up instead of gorging on burgers during backyard barbecues.
Bexel B-complex vitamins also invested in celebrity endorsements. Singer and actress Betty Hutton was identified as having “pep-appeal”, which was a throwback to Mastin’s promises of delivering “firm fresh pep” for men. Now society had advanced to the point where women could have pep too, as well as “popularity, gaiety, and romance” — they really could have it all with Bexel.
Women would become an important target market for vitamin producers, who switched their strategy after the war to keep pace with women returning to the home as household managers. The space vitamin producers wanted to occupy the most? The dinner table.
Women as family nutrition gatekeepers: Vitamins at dinner
Similar to how household products were mainly advertised to women in the 1950s (and still now?), vitamin producers doubled down on advertising to women as they zeroed in on their presence at the dinner table as a meal time staple.
As vitamin producers intensified their advertising efforts, threats to legitimacy loomed over their heads. During the 1940s, court cases against supplement companies kept pace with increased marketing budgets, and the industry was beginning to lose any thin shred of legitimacy it had. A study of such cases from 1947 to 1952 revealed that 43% of violations could be boiled down to false and misleading labeling.
As the scientific and medical communities began to rally efforts to regulate the supplement industry — the AMA and the FDA held the first of two National Congresses on Medical Quackery in 1961 — vitamin producers turned to packaging as a way to communicate legitimacy while also targeting women. Similar to how Absolut modeled its famous bottle after apothecary bottles in the 1970s, vitamin producers transformed their bottles into something that looked like it could sit on a pharmacy shelf beside medicine prescribed by your doctor.
The bottles didn’t just look like apothecary bottles, though — they were also designed to look like salt and pepper shakers. Just as salt and pepper didn’t communicate a lack of flavor in a meal, vitamins didn’t suggest a lack of nutrition in food that a mother had slaved over for her husband and children.
Vitamins were a spice, and you only needed a dash to complete your family meal. After conquering the dinner table, vitamin producers set their sights on the next logical target market, one that would translate to long-term brand loyalty if successful: children.
From moms to kids: Flintstones vitamins
In June 1962, the FDA finally proposed new regulations to the “special dietary food” category under which supplements lived.
Court cases against supplement companies that claimed their herbs could cure life-threatening diseases like cancer had been rotating through the judicial system for years. After the first National Congress on Medical Quackery in 1961, the FDA formally identified eight vitamins and four minerals as the “only those nutrients recognized by competent authorities as essential and of significant dietary-supplement value.” From then on, labels that claimed nutritional supplementation as a benefit could only list those ingredients.
The jury was still out on the need for supplements over nutritious food to round out the average diet, but the industry had become so flooded with outrageous pseudoscientific claims that medical professionals saw new labeling requirements as a win, however small.
In 1960, vitamin synthesis and production had become so cheap that the industry as a whole was known as a place to make high profits. Miles Laboratory, makers of the One-a-Day vitamin since 1940, pounced on what it saw as an untapped corner of the market and developed Chocks, the first chewable vitamin for children.
As other vitamin producers saw opportunities for profit in the children’s vitamin space, copycats emerged. Mile Laboratory knew they would have to take a bold step if they wanted to hold on to their market share, so they partnered with a beloved cartoon franchise to capture the attention of both parents and kids.
In 1968, The Flintstones had been off the air for two years — but the franchise lived on through syndication, educational shows, and other television adaptations. Miles Laboratory placed an informed bet on the show’s longevity and potential for nostalgia that could create long-term brand loyalty.
Advertised as a way to make up for children’s poor appetite during meals as a result of snacking, Flintstones vitamins featured prominently on the dinner table, just as its predecessors had in the 1950s. Check out this 1974 ad, which encourages mothers to “do your best to see that [your kids] eat well and help make sure kids get vitamins they may be missing.”
Since Flintstones vitamins contained only ingredients approved by the FDA in its list of 12 vitamins and minerals, they weren’t violating any regulations. And never did they need to prove that their product was required to supplement a child’s diet, especially after new regulations introduced in the 1990s solidified the industry’s position as an absent participant of the scientific community.
No need for proof: The 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act
By the end of the 1980s, 36% of men and 48% of women were taking some sort of vitamin. Despite the lack of proof of the efficacy of vitamins, the industry had done a good job of convincing a lot of people that they needed vitamins to supplement their diets.
In 1994, the last time the supplement industry came under any significant regulatory review, the FDA established the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act after successful lobbying from the vitamin industry. The backbone of the act was that the burden of proof was on the government, not the industry, to prove that products were safe and effective. That meant the FDA could only regulate the industry little by little as things went wrong, rather than the industry proving that their ingredients were safe and effective before hitting the market.
In 2016, Pieter Cohen, associate professor at Harvard Medical School and an internist at Cambridge Health Alliance, wrote in The Supplement Paradox that, “The lax DSHEA requirements for proof of product safety led to a rapid increase in the number of supplements in the marketplace. From an estimated 4,000 in 1994 to 55,000 in 2012.”
In 2021, Cohen reiterates the need for further reform on the American Medical Association’s podcast, where he discusses the supplements industry within the context of the pandemic. Now he says there are 75,000 supplement products on the market, and new ingredients are introduced to the market at higher speeds due to more innovation.
The thing is, the FDA isn’t reviewing any of those ingredients for safety because regulation doesn’t require them to — all while they’re overwhelmed with claims due to COVID.
Nothing is new and everything is the same, 100 years later
More than a century after the vitamin industry was established, it’s come full circle with its messaging.
Gwenyth Paltrow’s Goop Wellness vitamins target women “who feel like their metabolism might be slowing down” with a supplement called “High School Genes” — implying, 100 years after versions of itself before it, that vitamins can make women look better, younger, and thinner.
Ritual, a supplement company beloved for its Instagram account with 306k followers, is trying to circumvent the supplement industry’s reputation for pseudoscience with pro-science messaging. The company emphasizes features first, stating that their products are vegan, gluten and major allergen free (minor allergens appear to be fine), and USP certified, which they know the average consumer won’t take the time to look up.
What’s interesting is that Ritual emphasizes that it has published an actual clinical study in a peer-reviewed journal. To end this article, we’ll highlight the results and let you decide for yourself what they mean — just as the FDA would like you to do as a consumer.
“Finally, while MV supplementation reversed vitamin D inadequacies to a large degree, we are uncertain as to whether changes in other assayed variables yielded clinically meaningful physiological changes given that the participants were apparently healthy…. This study demonstrates that MV supplementation was effective at increasing serum vitamin D and folate levels, and favorably altering red blood cell fatty acid levels in healthy pre-menopausal women. MV supplementation appeared to be safe and well tolerated given that blood pressure and serum markers of clinical safety were not affected. All of these findings warrant future longer-term investigations as to whether MV supplementation can positively affect blood biomarkers and associated health outcomes in populations who are dyslipidemic, present lowgrade inflammation, and/or are vitamin D or folate-deficient.”