When people still put their faith in the Lord God and his ground staff, the Catholic Church offered a wide range of saints and relics for sale for the sake of recovery. Udo Pollmer uses the example of vitamin C to show that today vitamins are rightly the worthy successors of exquisite relics of Christ.
by Udo Pollmer / October 5th, 2018, supplemented in November 2023
Swallowing vitamins has replaced the arduous pilgrimages to relics once visited by the sick in the hope of healing. Today, vitamin cocktails promise...
...salvation where once the worship of a tablecloth was required. In the monastery of Andechs in Bavaria, a piece of the tablecloth of the Last Supper is kept for this purpose. Pregnant women made pilgrimages to Charroux in France because the foreskin of Christ left there promised a happy birth. Another specimen attracted the faithful to the Lateran Church in Rome. A total of 13 foreskins of Christ, Sancta Praeputia, were venerated - exactly as many as there are now vitamins from which the community expects the same miracles.
Among fellow believers
The paradigm shift from a worthless chemical to an indispensable elixir of life was initiated by the Swiss company Hoffmann-La Roche, a good 80 years ago, when it looked for ways to market ascorbic acid. Vitamin C had proved effective against scurvy, an old seafarer's ailment. But that had long since disappeared and new uses were not apparent. So the company's propaganda department was tasked with "turning general practitioners into vitamin believers or vitamin prescribers". This proved more difficult than expected; the pharmaceutical representatives were only laughed at by the general practitioners.
So the medical profession was tickled by a sensitive organ, the wallet. To do this, they needed a new indication. Roche invented "occult hypovitaminosis". Besides acute deficiencies, there were also "hidden" deficiencies and it was the doctors' task to uncover their "dangerousness and insidiousness".
"Fishers of men"
Bernese medical historian Beat Bächi quotes the following from Roche files: "Roche thus launched an 'educational campaign to hammer home the concept of C-deficiency' to doctors. The propaganda department launched a veritable campaign to 'convince the widest circles of the desirability, even the necessity, of regular vitamin C intake'. (...) A medical doctor should smell a 'C-deficit' everywhere and prescribe vitamin C as a precaution. 'But he will only do this if he himself has the opportunity to diagnose and impute a new disease to the patient.'" Disease mongering, the invention of non-existent diseases, is what the industry now calls this sleazy business.
For the "hypovitaminosis fishing expedition", as the company jargon went, "some hocus-pocus" was needed. A test was offered to the healing trade: if the patient's urine decoloured the blue dye dichlorophenolindophenol, then there was enough vitamin C in the body, if not, then tablets were needed. However, the decolourisation only occurred with a massive overdose, so that the vitamin washed out again unchanged with the urine. Thus, the health-conscious patients could see with their own eyes how they would soon succumb to infirmity without tablets. The test was therefore medically completely pointless and served only the dubious business interests of the company, the pharmacists and the doctors.
The concept behind so-called "occult hypovitaminosis" works like this: If you start your car with a full tank, after a few kilometres you have a little less fuel in the tank. And that's when the "occult" fuel deficiency in the car begins. Today we speak of "subclinical" deficiency because the word "occult" has a telltale connotation.
The official vitamin C recommendations are over 100 mg/day (up to 155 mg), many times more than the body can absorb. For the EU experts, 30 mg was already more than enough in 1992. "Excessive intakes" of 80 grams and more, they say, lead to "excretion of the unconverted vitamin C through the urine, from which it can be concluded that tissue stores are saturated at such intakes". And: "It is difficult to justify a demand that exceeds the storage capacity of the cells."
Transferred to the occult lack of petrol, this would mean not only compensating for the "subclinical lack" at the next petrol station, but also tipping twice the tank content over the seats to achieve "tissue saturation". The dealers' promise: Now the small car would shoot off like a Maserati, which also swallows more petrol.
The idea of a "subclinical deficiency" laid the foundation for a scam that has since grown into a multi-billion dollar business. To be clear: a "deficiency" without a clinical picture is not a deficiency, but a fad.
Vitamin researcher: "Mental dullness".
The campaign really took off in Switzerland at that time, when the nutrition gurus in the medical profession sensed their chance and loudly complained: "Despite ... the vitamin preparations of our pharmaceutical industry, there is a sensational amount of disease damage in the Swiss population due to a preference for a low-vitamin ... diet". That was in 1939.
In 1942, a vitamin researcher in the journal Science fabricated that the "mental dullness on the part of school children" was the result of an occult vitamin deficiency. This leads to "cheat, lie, steal or become delinquent". And further: "Since an ample supply of vitamins can foster a higher intelligence in human subjects it has also the capability of fostering morality”. Roche granted special conditions especially to the operators of labour camps.
After World War 2, the company crowned its hypovitaminosis fishing expeditions with a product that Till Eulenspiegel could not have thought up better: Vitaminised nylon stockings for the fashion- and health-conscious woman!
On 14 May 1954, a tragic accident occurred: the ascorbic acid plant blew up, killing five workers. To this day, the vitamin explosion remains the most serious accident at Roche in Basel. But the company was not discouraged and years later developed a new explosive made of artificial fertiliser, a little baking powder and a lot of super-healthy vitamin C. The "Golden Powder" was good for the job. According to Hoffmann-La Roche, the "Golden Powder" was suitable for gunpowder, fireworks and as rocket fuel.
Wikipedia - the new catechism
Today, such escapades are superfluous, the market is booming even without Golden Powder, the "hypovitaminosis fishing expedition" in the murky fishing grounds of medicine is yielding rich harvests: Produced by genetic engineering at a ridiculously low price, traded as a "natural vitamin" for impressive sums, ever higher "recommendations" are put forward. Wikipedia is already working its way up to the sound barrier of one gram per day. But bearing in mind that this only makes the urine acidic, because the body refuses to accept it, it is "for this reason (...) more sensible to take several individual doses of 200 mg each over the course of the day than a single 1000 mg". This sales idea surpasses the vitamin socks and can undoubtedly be considered a star lesson in nutritional advice!
Of course, ascorbic acid is a chemical with its merits: it has proven its worth as an additive for food for decades: as a preservative for water-based products, especially juices. In addition, it helps to accelerate flour ripening and improve the baking properties of doughs. In its modified form as ascorbyl palmitate, it is also suitable for fat-containing products, especially sausages; here not only to increase shelf life, but also to accelerate reddening so that the red curing colour develops more quickly. This is why sausages and ham are now more important sources of vitamin C than fruit and vegetables.
Bächi B: Konsum und Kontrolle: Wie Vitamin C zu einem Allheilmittel werden konnte. Therapeutische Umschau 2015; 72: 463-468
Bächi B: Vitamin C für alle! Pharmazeutische Produktion, Vermarktung und Gesundheitspolitik (1933-1953). Chronos, Zürich 2009
Herrmann H: Lexikon der kuriosesten Reliquien. Rütten & Loening, Berlin 2003
Jetzler A, Niederberger W: Zur Methodik der Ascorbinsäure-Bestimmung im Urin. Klinische Wochenschrift 1936; 20: 710–711
Williams RJ: Vitamins in the future. Science 1942; 95: 340-344
Hoffmann-La Roche AG: Preparation of explosives containing degradation products of ascorbic or isoascorbic acid. US-Patent 4.964.929; 23. Oct. 1990
Wehrli PA, Space MJ: Golden Powder: A new explosive/propellant based on ascorbic acid. 13th Symposium on Explosives and Pyrotechnics. Hyatt on Hilton Head Island, SC, 2-4. Dec. 1986
Deutsche Gesellschaft für Ernährung e.V.: Referenzwert Vitamin C. Stand 2015. dge.de
Europäische Kommission: Nährstoff- und Energiezufuhr in der Europäischen Gemeinschaft. Berichte des Wissenschaftlichen Lebensmittelausschusses, 31. Folge, Luxemburg 1994
Pollmer U: Zusatzstoffe von A-Z. Was Etiketten verschweigen. Deutsches Zusatzstoffmuseum, Hamburg 2017
Wikipedia: Ascorbinsäure. Retrieved am 30. Sept. 2023
Pollmer U, Warmuth S: Pillen, Pulver, Powerstoffe – die falschen Versprechungen der Nahrungsergänzungsmittel. Eichborn, Frankfurt 2008
Copyright: EU.L.E. e.V.
First version published on 5. Okt 2018: => Pollmers Mahlzeit: Unter Glaubensbrüdern - Vitamine statt Vorhäute
English editor: Josef Hueber, Eichstätt