“Everyone is after that way to be a little bit healthier and feel better, fresher, less tired,” says Dr Derek Muller, a scientist, filmmaker and the man behind popular science YouTube channel Veritasium. “We all have very busy schedules and it’s easy to get run down, so if anything offers that extra little boost, I think we go for it. So, I can completely understand the interest in these products.
“[The industry] is huge and it’s only growing, so I expect in five or 10 years it’s likely to be double the size it is now. That’s why it’s worth asking: what are we getting out of this?”
This question drives Muller’s new documentary Vitamania: the sense and nonsense of vitamins, which sees him tap up leading experts and travel the globe – the US, Oz, even the Arctic Circle in Norway – to discover the history and science behind vitamins as well as those supps in your cupboard.
A vitamin that really surprised Muller on his journey is one that’s packed into that sweet potato you just chowed down. Or that capsicum, spinach and carrot mix next to your salmon.
“There are still a number of people in the developing world, particularly kids, who don’t get enough vitamin A in their diet,” he says. “It’s typically found in yellowy-orange fruits and vegies. If you don’t get enough vitamin A, one of the symptoms is a lack of vision at night. That can get worse and worse, until you eventually go blind in the day as well. It can be deadly.
“What’s fascinating is that just a few vitamin A tablets a year – high-dose supplements – at a cost of cents or a dollar can save a child’s sight and save their life. I met this young boy in Perth and he was suffering from degrading vision. Doctors tried to figure out what was happening to his eyes for years and years, until someone finally thought to ask, ‘well, what’s he eating?’ They found that he was severely deficient in vitamin A. They gave him these high-dose supplements and restored sight in one of his eyes.
“It’s remarkable what lack of a single molecule can do to us. I think that’s maybe one of the most surprising things, is that 13 vitamins are so essential to us functioning normally in our lives. It’s sort of incredible.”
It’s this new appreciation of the power of vitamins and nutrients that has Muller prioritising his plate above anything else. “Unless your doctor is prescribing [any supplements], chances are you should think more about your diet than your pills. That would be one of my big takeaways.
“When I started making a film about vitamins, I immediately thought of bottles of pills and, when I had a cold, my mum giving me vitamin C and echinacea and zinc and all those supposed remedies and things. And after doing this documentary, my sense is really to eat better. More vegetables, more fruits, making sure you have a good serving of fish here and there, and eating some nuts. Just really varying the diet and trying to eat a diverse range of those sorts of foods.
“In an apple there’s something like 1000 phytochemicals, so there are all these micronutrients. There’s so much more in food than we understand at the moment, and maybe more than we can ever understand. So, the right approach to having a really healthy body I think is in large part having a healthy diet. I think that’s really the best thing that anyone can do.”
Vitamania will be televised on Sunday, August 12 on SBS at 8.30pm and will be available on SBS On Demand straight after.