The Truth About Vitamins: What I Learned Making The Curious Case of Vitamins & Me

We all think we know vitamins – and we’re told they’re essential – but why do we really need them? Can we get what we need from our food or should we turn to supplements to fill in the gaps? These were a few questions on my mind when I set out to understand the nebulous science of Vitamins in The Curious Case of Vitamins & Me, my documentary for The Nature of Things on CBC. You can watch it now here.

Making this particular film was probably one of my most challenging experiences as a science communicator. My first doc for The Nature of Things about the biology and evolution of male homosexuality might seem like it explores a more complex topic, but with only a handful of scientists studying various aspects of the genetics, neurochemistry and evolutionary biology of being gay worldwide, it was relatively easy to connect the scientific dots and find mostly satisfying answers to the research questions.

The Curious Case of Vitamins on the other hand tackles a much simpler question on the surface: do we take need to take vitamin supplements or don’t we? As I’d soon discover, the answers couldn’t be less black and white – which isn’t always great when you’re trying to make a digestible, coherent and entertaining documentary.

My favourite cereal says it so it must be true, right?

My favourite cereal says it so it must be true, right?

For starters, I learned a lot of the vitamin information we all rely upon isn’t even that accurate. Take the nutrition info on the back of prepackaged food, a mandatory fixture in Canada since 2007. When it comes to essential micronutrients, food labels in the United States or Canada are only required to include information on Vitamin AVitamin Ccalcium and iron – so whether food manufacturers include data on the other 11 essential vitamins is only optional.


Nutrition Facts: Mandatory since 2007, but guess how reliable they are.

Nutrition Facts labels provide information on percentage Daily Values – which are based on Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for each micronutrient, which were originally calculated way back in 1968 using data from World War II, when governments had to determine what soldiers serving overseas needed to avoid getting known deficiency disorders like Rickets or Scurvy. Scientists from the the NIH, Health Canada and Institute of Medicine reevaluate these numbers each year, but apparently rely upon surveys and opinions, or the “lowest rank of evidence.”

Even though scientists reevaluate the RDAs every few years, manufactures actually base their numbers on figures over a decade old! In many cases, the current RDAs are up to 50% higher than the Daily Values we consumers end up seeing. Take Vitamin C. If you follow the label, all we need to meet the RDA is 60mg, when in fact the RDA for Vitamin C is currently 75mg for women or 90mg for men, which is 50% higher!  If we can’t fully trust food labels – or even the RDAs that inform them – how can we figure out if we’re getting what we need in terms of essential vitamins?  And more importantly, do we need to turn to supplements to fill in any gaps?

I head from San Francisco to Washington DC to get the answers (and indulge my costume change obsession).

I head from San Francisco to Washington DC to get the answers (and indulge my costume change obsession).

Most experts – including the Scott Smith, the lead nutritionist of NASA’s Space program – seem to agree a balanced diet of colourful fruits and veggies is the best way to get our vitamins, some scientists have observed modern fruits and vegetables may not have the same nutrition as they used to be because of soil depletion – with declines as high as 37%! If we can’t trust we’re getting what we really need – is it okay to take vitamin supplements, to compensate for these gaps in our diet?

One leading nutritionist demonstrated that when we’re low on certain vitamins, like Vitamin K, we ration it towards short-term survival (blood-clotting in the case of K) instead of long-term health (preventing hardening of the arteries). If this ends up being the case for the rest of the Vitamins, maybe we should turn to multivitamins, as insurance?

Some experts believe multivitamins provide no definitive health benefits – besides maybe a placebo effect – they do little to prevent cancer, heart disease or other signs of aging. Then again, how do you prove a vitamin assisted in the prevention of cancer or heart disease, you didn’t get 20 years down the line? Modern research methods – the gold standard being randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials – are often too time-consuming and therefore expensive to perform for vitamins. And until the medical worlds at larges shifts the priority from reactionary measures to preventive ones, this paradigm likely won’t change.

In the US, you'll find this delightful small print on most supplements.

In the US, you’ll find this delightful small print on most supplements.

If there’s no conclusive evidence multivitamins are dangerous to our health, can there really be such thing as too much of a good thing, when it comes to vitamins? Turns out individual vitamins consumed in excess can be dangerous. Study after study has demonstrated taking excess amounts of fat-soluble Vitamins A (or beta-carotene) and E can increase the risk of developing lung cancer or prostate cancer, respectively, by up to 20%! While the scientists can’t pinpoint the exact molecular processes at work, the reality is we can overdose. The RDA figures include Upper Limits for most vitamins, and many have severe side effects if you consume too much. To put this in perspective one tablet of Vitamin E at 1000 IU is roughly 3000% of the RDA for Vitamin E. To consume this much natural Vitamin E, you would need to consume about 120 avocados.

Now before you abandon your supplements, there might be some exceptions to the rule. Take Vitamin D, an important micronutrient, essential for good bone health. We need sunlight to activate Vitamin D and many food products like milk are fortified with it to ensure we get enough to prevent the deficiency disorder, rickets. But some argue we may not be getting enough Vitamin D, especially for those of us in cooler climates, like Canada. We need the sun to make Vitamin D – and scientists recently discovered we need Vitamin D to make serotonin, the feel-good neurotransmitter, which might explain why so many of us get depressed during the winter.

My blood test reveals my Vitamin D levels are less than ideal. Or typical for Canadians.

My blood test reveals my Vitamin D levels are less than ideal. Or typical for Canadians.

If we have different needs for Vitamin D based on our geography, does that mean we have different needs for other vitamins – and if so, what’s our recourse? Given how complex nutrition science can be, I think getting better informed about our individual needs is the only viable answer.

We took this approach when making the documentary, where I get my blood tested for deficiency levels to find out if I really need to supplement (available to anyone with a Health Card in Canada). These tests are certainly not comprehensive nor definitive, but they will provide a more accurate portrait of your current health needs – and might help you avoid the latest trendy products getting the Dr. Oz stamp of approval. As G.I. Joe taught me, “knowing is half the battle.” But ultimately the biggest lesson made about Vitamins is that we’re only scratching the surface of what we know about them. And that I need to be a lot more skeptical in general as a consumer.

I mentioned this documentary was tough to make. The second major challenge we faced was figuring out what my place would be in the narrative of all of this and how we’d integrate my light and fun energy. Survival of the Fabulous was born from my obviously personal quest to understand what makes me who I am, which provided a pretty convenient and authentic narrative through line.

Vitamins as a subject matter is a lot more universal – and a lot more scientifically technical – so finding out a reason why somebody like me – who isn’t a doctor or a microbiologist. I don’t have a PhD, I didn’t even study science in University. So why should audiences take somebody who just isn’t smart enough seriously?

Dr. Patrick teaches me how Vitamin D synthesizes serotonin - and how to make science cool.

Dr. Patrick teaches me how Vitamin D synthesizes serotonin – and how to make science cool.

As it turns out – it doesn’t really matter. Sure it helped to tie in the fact that I used to be a chubby Hermione Granger know-it-all who transformed myself From Chunky to Hunky – and now is obsessed with fitness and nutrition. But the reality is science should matter to us all – whether you’re a medical practitioner, a university professor or the every day, average person.

My personal shtick as the keener layman who loves to explore science is my way in. Because I don’t understand science the way doctors and geneticists do naturally makes me better equipped to ask the questions the rest of us might be thinking. The dumb questions that might seem obvious, but force us to think outside the box and really, truly understand something dense and complicated.

In a sense that makes me the Jennifer Love Hewitt of the documentary world. #TheScientistWhisperer.