This is modified from a paper my buddy Lee-Ann and I wrote for a sociology of food class we took back in BC. Mad props to Lee-Ann who actually still had a copy of it!
There is a lot more to say about supplements, but I don’t have enough time or space to say it all. Everything I have written is about concerns regarding supplements in a sociological sense. We didn’t even attempt to tackle some of the scientific issues, such as absorption inhibition. I hope that this is informative and makes your multivitamins just a little harder to swallow.
I think it’s fair to say that we have all eaten supplements. They can be found everywhere, in pills, powder, and in the food we buy at the supermarket. The idea that a person can stay healthy or actually improve their health through supplement use is a message we receive from the industry and health care professionals every day. Scientists and lobbyists have created a need for what is misunderstood by many to be a replacement for eating well. The need that has been created to sell these supplements associates sickness with not taking them, and fear of chronic illness or deficiency play an important role in their consumption.
In the supplement industry, health experts create new terms meant to invoke particular feelings toward supplements. In 1989, for example, a medical expert coined the term “nutraceutical” in reference to “isolated nutrients, dietary supplements, herbal products, and processed products such as cereal, soups, and beverages” (Andlauer & Furst, 2002, p. 171). This term is rich with meaning as it melds ideas of nutrition (nutra) with disease treatment (pharmaceutical). It conveys a message that nutraceutical products are foods that prevent dis-ease, a powerful marketing technique that speaks to long, happy, pain-free lives.
A “supplemental consciousness” creates a particular perception of food-in-a-pill that supports consumerism. The way consumers think cultivates the desire to purchase nutraceuticals. Fischler (1980) argued that contemporary mainstream urban Western eating habits are marked by time-smart, individualistic consumption patterns that replace leisurely group meals with snacking. The rise of this fast food mentality is linked to food simplification and to the nutraceutical industry. The dominant consumer discourse generates knowledge that reduces food into its component parts for marketing purposes. This simplification of food, results in a belief that food’s fragments are more important than the whole food itself. For example, milk is consumed for its calcium, bananas for potassium, and oranges for vitamin C. When we think this way, we can feel good about taking a calcium supplement in lieu of a glass of milk. This distorted perception works to limit our consumption to foods that contain the nutrients we think we need according to the experts. Our food becomes shrouded in mysticism. This simplification of food represents the transition from eating and thinking about whole foods to the use of supplements and the underlying belief that we no longer need to eat to eat.
When we conscious consumers visit a health food store, we want something that defines itself as “natural”. This brings forth thoughts of purity, and of products unaltered, untreated, and undisguised. Conversely, “unnatural” symbolizes all things contrived, invented, artificial, or polluted. Based on the above definitions, nutraceuticals are anything but natural. Even the word “nutraceutical” or “supplement” falls outside the scope of the natural because they are invented words that refer to un-food— they do not sustain life on their own. Raw, “natural” materials are harvested, processed, packaged, and marketed; their artificiality can hardly be argued.
Bagchi (2006) outlines several regulatory challenges of ensuring “natural” product quality such as how the raw materials are gathered, processed, and packaged. Each of these stages in product development can vary widely, which can directly affect the final result. For example, “the manufacturing processes, use of solvents/additives, purification and drying techniques, and storage conditions may play a major role on the occurrence of significant amount of contaminants, pesticides, microorganisms, heavy metals, toxic chemicals or solvent residues in the [natural health product]” (2006, p. 2). The complexities inherent in creating food in medicinal form are conveniently swept aside in the pretty displays in your local health food store. Neat rows of gleaming logos and clearly priced items obfuscate the rampant confusion that lies behind the label.
As an experiment, Lee-Ann and I went to a local health food store and asked the employees where their supplements came from. Employee referred us to employee until the supervisor herself admitted that she had no idea where most of these products were assembled or where the raw herbs and spices were grown and harvested. The pill or bottle becomes a puzzle as consumers cease to recognize that the commodity is a social relation - the nutraceutical bottles we examined did not encourage concern regarding the working conditions of the people whose labour is used to harvest these products, but encouraged us to turn inward and consider our own, individual “journey to better health.”