One of the most sugar-heavy aisles in Whole Foods is the bars section, where a variety of protein-heavy meal replacements and snacks are marketed under the guise of healthiness. Ironically many of these same ‘power bars’ sit next to Snickers and Kit-Kats in 7-11, which is a more honest approach as most of these concoctions are little more than sugar-delivery methods.
We love sugar, and we love it even more when we pretend eating it is in the name of health. Companies manufacturing such products argue that since a surplus of vitamins and supplements are being delivered the foodstuff must be palatable. In the modern world sweetness dominates.
Forget foods for a moment. Vitamin manufacturers realized that a trick used to lure children into taking their daily dosage works equally well with adults. Gummy vitamins now bring in $1 billion dollars in sales in the $41 billion supplements industry. But are they really healthy?
In Cooked, Michael Pollan argues that fortified bread is the result of the insidious mass production model. Stripping flour of nutrients to save costs then pumping in vitamins is not the proper way to get what your body needs. He also argues that it’s not gluten but time harming most people’s digestive systems. Rushing nature’s fermentation process demands unhealthy trade-offs.
Much the same can be said for vitamins. Since the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 allowed companies to market and sell products with no proven results, consumers have bought into the notion that if 100 percent of RDA is good, 500 percent must be better. Instead of a balanced diet we began supplementing by popping pills even while evidence of efficacy is scant.
This desire to pump your body with vitamins and minerals coupled with a growing prescription load has created pill fatigue. Not all pills taste good; many are not easy to swallow; the drudgery of washing down a dozen capsules every morning becomes boring. Sugar is probably the most non-boring means of consumption—the quick pleasure hit is hormonally measurable—and so the rise of gummy bears.
Consider Adult Bronson Bears, marketed as ‘naturally fruit-flavored,’ ‘100% vegetarian,’ and containing ‘no high fructose corn syrup.’ Scroll down to the fine print, however, to learn that the first two ingredients are glucose syrup and sugar, that the natural fruit flavoring is derived from the ambiguous ‘natural flavors’ and coloring, and that each daily dose contains six grams of sugar, or a quarter of the World Health Organization’s recommended daily allowance. Compare this to pretty much any store brand multivitamin pill and that’s an extra six grams of gummy sugar every day.
There are certainly good reasons for taking vitamins if you are deficient. Supplements might give you a cognitive boost or help curb arthritis and inflammation. Since evidence is often anecdotal and unverified (since there’s no need for verification) it’s hard to pass through the vitamin aisle and be confident in your purchase. Unfortunately for consumers this confusion is a lucrative part of the supplement industry.
One critic of gummy vitamins points out the more fillers used to create little bears, the less space exists for active ingredients. Gummies might combat pill fatigue, but first we have to ask if these vitamins are necessary, and second if the high dosage of sugar is worth any potential benefits.
For most of history we received vitamins and minerals from eating a balanced diet. This should still be the case, especially given the wide variety of fresh foods we can purchase at any time of year. Persistent sweet teeth and cultural aversions have made many shy away from nutrient-dense foods like organ meats and bitter greens. That’s a shame. Gummy vitamins are the equivalent of eating a well-done steak with ketchup—something a child does that should at some point be abandoned. Sure, you can keep doing it, but the cost might be more than the benefit.
Derek's next book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health, will be published on 7/4/17 by Carrel/Skyhorse Publishing. He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.