CBC documentary examines confusion over need for nutritional supplements

October 21, 2015


Other than a vitamin D supplement, aimed at offsetting the lack of direct sunlight encountered by astronauts in space, NASA crews are kept on a simple and sensible diet while aloft.


After all the science, all the research and all the miles and hours spent seeking expert opinions from physicians and scientists, it pretty much comes down to this: You should listen to your mother.


Filmmaker Bryce Sage’s new documentary, The Curious Case of Vitamins and Me (which premières Thursday at 8 p.m. on CBC’s The Nature of Things), seeks to cut through the clutter and often-bogus claims that make the topics of nutrition, vitamins and supplements so confusing for even the most health-conscious of consumers.


It’s an interesting project that offers in-depth answers to some of the most common questions that ordinary folks have about their diets and their health.


Sage, a self-described former fat person who now pays near-obsessive attention to diet and exercise, travels extensively around North America in a quest to gather information that will separate the truth from the bogus when it comes to vitamins’ role in a healthy lifestyle.

Despite a few awkward production choices that make some of his on-camera segments feel rather staged and clunky, Sage works hard at making the science-heavy portions of his documentary as accessible and entertaining as possible.


His journey begins in San Francisco, where he meets with anthropologist Katharine Milton, whose ongoing study of primates offers an intriguing perspective on why the bodies of humans and other anthropoids function differently from those of other animal species when it comes to vitamins.


Sage’s next stop is Washington, D.C., where he questions a U.S. government expert about the reasons for, and accuracy of, the nutritional-content information that’s printed on food packaging. Armed with this new knowledge and a nutrition textbook, he heads to a grocery store, seeking to fill his cart with all the elements of a healthy, balanced diet.


He’s accompanied by nutrition expert Dr. David Katz, who points out significant differences between naturally occurring vitamins and minerals and those added during the controversial process of "fortification" of processed foods.


To escape the processed-foods trap, Sage returns to California, where organic farmer Jake Daigle explains that the nutrient content of old-fashioned fruits and veggies has actually decreased — sometimes by as much as 10 to 30 per cent — as producers have pushed for higher-yield versions of their cash crops.

Which, of course, brings Sage back to the question of whether vitamin supplements have become an essential part of the modern-day diet. On that issue, what the filmmaker finds is a level of disagreement among food-focused researchers — some think supplements are useful, while others are inclined to view them as a waste of consumers’ money.


"Those who take multivitamins are not any healthier than those who don’t," offers vitamin/nutrition skeptic Dr. Paul Offit. "Now, they’re not any less healthy, so I don’t think that multivitamins hurt you. But there’s no evidence that they help you; I suspect it just makes for a lot of expensive urine."


A scientist at NASA’s Houston headquarters seems to support Offit’s suspicions, pointing out that other than a vitamin D supplement, aimed at offsetting the lack of direct sunlight encountered by astronauts in space, NASA crews are kept on a simple and sensible diet while aloft.


"What we recommend to crews is essentially what your mother told you," says Scott Smith, NASA’s manager for nutrition biochemistry. "More fruits and vegetables, (and) everything in moderation."


It’s hardly an earth-shaking nutritional revelation, but it helps to point Sage toward a conclusion that should bring comfort to those who’ve become overwhelmed by the marketing claims and dubious science that have turned grocery shopping into an exercise in misinformation management.


"A balanced diet is still the best way to get your vitamins," he says. "It’s what Mom recommended, and what Mother Nature intended."


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