More Options

Vitamania: The Sense and Nonsense of Vitamins

Curiouser and Curiouser

Kylie Sturgess

September 10, 2018


Vitamania: The Sense and Nonsense of Vitamins Interview with Sonya Pemberton

Almost one billion of us take a regular dietary supplement, mainly vitamin tablets. Celebrities enthusiastically endorse vitamins, and vitamin-fortified foods line our supermarket shelves. But how safe are these products? Is it true that vitamins are “natural” and therefore can’t do you any harm? How are they regulated, and how can parents make the right choices for their children’s health?

These questions are investigated by scientist Dr. Derek Muller in Vitamania, the latest documentary made by Emmy Award-winning Australian filmmakers, Genepool Productions.

I spoke to the writer, director, and producer of the documentary, Sonya Pemberton.

Sonya Pemberton: Derek Muller sent me some of his videos back in the day before Veritasium was the huge YouTube five-million-subscribers beast it is today, and I loved his work. I used to send him emails going, “Who does your camera work?” He goes, “Me.” “Who does your editing?” “Me!” “Who writes your script?” “Me!” And I thought wow, he’s an impressive young man! We tried to find ways to work together and it never quite happened.

And then we were doing Uranium: Twisting the Dragon's Tale, our three-part series, and he had put forward some female physicists because I wanted to have a female host. And the various broadcasters around the world just couldn’t agree on which female and they all just kept arguing and arguing. Eventually they said, “Do you have a bloke,” and I said, “We have one bloke and only one bloke, and his name’s Derek Muller. And if we were going to go with a man it would be him.” And they all went, “Yes.”

And so Derek and I worked for the best part of two years on the uranium series and got to know each other really well then. And then we had a bit of a shock with the uranium series: the amount of illegal downloads it got! It has the dubious honor of being the most illegally downloaded series in PBS International’s history. We estimate 1.7 million illegal downloads, which was great on one level but absolutely catastrophic for the business side of trying to make a film and pay for your filmmaking.

Derek and I decided we wanted to do more together, and we wanted to work together as sort of co-executive producers, and I wanted to direct him on another project. We came up with Vitamania, something we both cared about and thought was really interesting. And so began a three-year journey of working on that together. And what’s interesting is making him a co-executive producer was really pivotal because we designed a strategy of releasing it so that his fans could get the film as soon as it became available on any network; they could access it online with a couple of caveats around that.

But it’s the first time a television documentary has been able to be released online within a couple of days of a TV broadcast. That’s a radical shift. And that’s a combination of his world of YouTube where if you’ve got a video you watch when you want to watch it, and my world of TV where we have to raise a lot of money. And therefore the broadcast is control, a release strategy. This was a very interesting hybrid of the two.

Kylie Sturgess: The documentary starts close to my home in Fremantle, Australia, with a football game and the story of a young man going blind. From there it starts an investigation into under-dosing and overdosing of vitamins, even going to the Antarctic. How much work went into making this a world-spanning investigation into vitamins?

Pemberton: An awful lot of work, three and a half years of work. There was a solid year of research where I spoke to numerous experts and I had a team of researchers helping me, and then there was a year of financing, and that was tricky in itself. And then there was a twelve-month production process because we had to film in blocks as we got our financing. And then a good six, seven months in post production. It was a massive amount of work.

We had, I think it's now five researchers, three fact checkers, and the script has 300 end notes. That's about forty pages of end notes. It is the most heavily fact checked and annotated script I've ever been involved with, and that's saying something because most of my scripts are heavily annotated, anyway. The reason it was such a challenge was actually a lot of the information we wanted, like the chemistry and the biochemistry of vitamins is hard to get hold of.

And there's competing experts! Expert A says this and expert B says that … so working our way through and trying to figure out what was the most useful thing we could give people, that was key.

Sturgess: I didn't expect actual funk when it came to talking about the history of vitamins! What inspired those kinds of creative elements?

Pemberton: Well, the fact that we broke into song on occasion is something I really just wanted to do! It was inspired by the research. As soon as I stumbled across the fact that Dr. Casimir Funk was the guy that gave vitamins their name and was the first to actually consider that there was a whole family of nutrients without which we died, that was really extraordinary. And of course, with a name like Dr. Funk, and I've spent twenty years in music as well as making films, I went, “Hello, we're going to have some fun with this!”

Interestingly, we did it in order to keep the film fresh, to make it memorable, because I would challenge anyone to forget the name of the scientist that invented the word vitamins after watching our film and to make it accessible to schools. And already we've had a massive uptake of viewing the documentary in schools, because the reality is the vitamin industry is 100 billion dollars a year. The vitamin industry is 100 billion dollars a year and growing. It's estimated it'll be 200 billion by 2020. That's only two years away.

It's an enormous beast, and it's basically big pharma and it's big vita guys, really. And no film's really going to make a dent in this, but what I wanted to do was make sure that younger people coming up were informed and able to make rational decisions around vitamins. If they understand that they're not natural, they're not made of squished up oranges and bits of broccoli. They're made chemically. There are chemicals and they're made in chemical factories, mostly in Asia. And that's not a bad thing. That's just the facts. Just don't kid yourself they're made out of squished up broccoli.

In the majority of countries such as Australia and America and most of Europe, they're not regulated before they go on sale in terms of safety and efficacy. They don't have to prove that they're safe or effective before they go on sale. I want people to know that because there's a veneer of safety around these things, and what we call a “health halo” around vitamins. And I just wanted people to take a clear hard look at it and if they want to take them, take them, but do it with knowledge that these things are chemical molecules that have powerful effects on people.

Sturgess: Now, you already touched on this, but it must have been a tremendous challenge to sort out what is a fair balance with all the information out there. What was the search like?

Pemberton: Ironically, this was the most difficult science film of my career and I've made maybe fifty films now. We made a series on uranium called Twisting a Dragon's Tale a couple of years ago, but this one was more complex. It was, surprisingly, far more difficult to get access and to get information. It was easier for us to get access to a nuclear power plant in the Ukraine and in America and fly drones over them than it was to even get inside a vitamin raw material plant!

We spent a couple of years writing and talking to as many vitamin raw material manufacturers that we could and none of them would let us come in. They would say, “Yes, yes, yes …” and then we would just get this constant delaying. No one actually says no, but the end result is you never get in. I was really, really surprised and disappointed that we never got to see behind the curtain if you like. But when we made the film about uranium we expected to have difficulties getting into nuclear power stations, getting in to see a nuclear reactor, but once people realized that we were science journalists and we just wanted to know how things worked, then the nuclear industry opened up and wanted to show us the behind the scenes. They wanted us to show how it all works!

The vitamin industry in contrast did not want to show us behind the scenes. And one major Australian manufacturer of vitamins that's well known, an Australian brand actually, said to me on the phone, “Sonya, you do realize we don't actually make any vitamin products in Australia, don't you?” And I went, “Yes, I do. But I wanted you to show how you put them into pills and how you manufacture the bottles of products, and then have you talk me through how the actual raw materials are made.” And basically it just never happened. That was the single most surprising and difficult thing.

And the other really surprising thing that both Derek and I commented on in our various talks and chats was that at the beginning of making this film both Derek and I thought of vitamins as pills. We had actually forgotten that vitamins are actually naturally occurring substances, chemical molecules that occur in food and that you get from sun, in the case of vitamin D. We'd actually forgotten this because the industry has been so successful in rebranding the word vitamin to mean a product.

What was a marvellous journey for us was going: you know what, vitamins are great, vitamins are in food, and they're miraculous. Look at all these great stories of what they can do and how they can save! Let's disconnect the word vitamin from pills. The synthetic vitamins, the manmade vitamins are different things all together. That was a very empowering moment in sifting through all the information because vitamins in their raw, natural state in food are extraordinary. They're wondrous.

But vitamins, when they are isolated from food and then manufactured in chemical factories around the world with very limited regulation and very little oversight in terms of safety and efficacy before sale, and then they're put into pills? Then they're a different kettle of fish. For people who are genuinely deficient, who really have terrible catastrophic deficiencies? They're life savers. There's no question. But for those of us that eat relatively normally and have access to good food, well the pills just don't even come close.

That’s why we ended up going to NASA in the end [of the documentary] because I was trying to figure out how do you clinch this story. How do you go and find people who’ve been studying the best health for humans on Earth and in space, who have been doing the most work? And we found out that NASA spends about fifty-five years researching the optimal human diet—all just to be able to send humans off planet.

And the bottom line is they don't send any vitamins into space other than vitamin D, and that's because if you think about it they can't get any sunlight when they're in a space capsule or in a spaceship. But I was really surprised to hear that they don't send a whole lot of vitamin pills. They actually send real food, and the reason being that all the research shows at the moment that food contains all these incredible molecules that we've barely begun to understand, and they work together with vitamins. All of these vita chemicals and of course there's other nutrients, there's fibre, fats, there's carbs and minerals, there's all these other things that go into food. Together they seem to work in this incredible synergy.

But when you isolate the vitamins and put them in pill form, then you get very mixed results about their efficacy for people who are healthy. That was a really simple but profound end game. And separating the pills from the actual naturally occurring vitamins I think was a really important thing that we had to do.

Sturgess: When Derek started eating a carrot in the middle of a vegetable stall at the start of the documentary, I found myself going to the fridge and getting myself a plate of vegetables in response because I thought, “Derek's having a carrot. I need more salad too …”!

Pemberton: Well, both he and I talk about the change we have made in our lives in terms of diet! We both now look at food as a source of incredible nutrients. Look, it's obvious but we're all so busy we forget some of the basics, and I look at a plate of food now and I can scan it really quickly and make a quick assessment about what vitamins may or may not be missing from that plate. I'm also not so hung up about worrying am I getting enough B12 or what's my D level like. I'm pretty confident that I eat well and that my food can cope with it and I have no health problems, touch wood. I feel much more confident in my ability to get what I need from food, and that came through making the film. And Derek feels the same. He was brought up as a kid on taking multi-vitamins, and there's a little video on our website showing Derek talking about the vitamins he used to take as a kid and the ten things you don't know about vitamins. But, now that he's a dad, he's got a couple of kids, and he was really worrying about whether he should be giving his kids vitamins. And the end result for him was he just feels far more empowered to do it with food. And that's subtle but profound.

Sturgess: What's been other people's response to this documentary? Any surprising ones from audiences?

Pemberton: The response has been phenomenal. We've released it internationally on multiple platforms. Through our website, vitamaniathemovie.com, there's various ways you can get it. We've had people getting it in India, some of the far reaches of Norway, across America, all around the world, and the vast majority of the responses has been, “Oh my God, I didn't realize that vitamins did all this,” and “Yes, I used to think of them as pills. Oh my goodness, this is all news to us.” That's been the biggest response.

Some of the surprising responses, I had a couple of naturopaths come up to me and say, “I came to this film thinking that it was going to be an anti-vitamin film, and instead I realised I was underestimating the power of vitamins, and now I know I have to be far more careful when I prescribe them.” For me, as someone who's a champion, like you, of critical thinking, and using a good dose of skepticism when you approach things, this was the best possible outcome. To have naturopaths and people like that actually say they got a lot from the film, that has been an amazing success.

The other really surprising thing is within a week of release, schools have rung up and asked for the music for the songs. Right now there's a primary school and a high school, the school orchestra is learning the vitamin song!

We've had to send out the sheet music, and I'm being sent all these videos. I'm getting these little videos from kids, such as a four year old singing, “Hey, hey, I'm vitamin A,” and I did not expect that. That's been such a joy. And the other thing is it's already been nominated for three major awards at the Jackson Hall Film Festival and the Science Media Awards, and Derek's been nominated for best science ambassador. It's been nominated for best journalism and best writing. It's been shortlisted for a whole lot of other awards.

From my point of view, I'm going to the people out there that we'd like them to be skeptical about vitamins, as in naturopaths, homeopaths, people who might use vitamins and not think more carefully about where they come from. The fact that they are watching this film means that we have not preached to the choir. The film is designed to go outside the scientific community.

The fact that schools are picking it up and we have a whole education package around that, that's been really important to me, and that people are having fun with it because it wasn't meant to be a heavy film. I've made heavy films, a lot of my films are very dense and very dark really, because they deal with very difficult subjects.

What was really enjoyable was to have a likeness of touch. Some of the science geeks don't like the songs and sometimes go, “Oh, why would you bother breaking into song?” What I would say to them is it was an attempt to be fresh and to have some fun and to attract a different audience. And it looks already, only two weeks after launch, that this is working. And I dare you to forget the name of the scientist that invented the word vitamin after watching it! For that reason alone I think the songs were worth doing. And also, the third song when Derek impersonates Bob Dylan.

Sturgess: Oh yes, that was hilarious!

Pemberton: I think it's just priceless, and Derek had such fun doing it! And if you listen carefully he is actually singing himself and also does do a duet. That was a lot of fun as well.

Vitamania is released worldwide—the official site with bonus videos, educational material, and more can be found at www.vitamaniathemovie.com/.

Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is the host of the Token Skeptic podcast and regularly writes editorial for numerous publications and the Token Skeptic blog. She was the co-host for the Global Atheist Convention in 2010 and 2012. An award-winning Philosophy teacher, Kylie has lectured on teaching critical thinking and anomalistic beliefs worldwide. In 2011 she was presented with the Secular Student Alliance Best Individual Activist Award and presented at the World Skeptics Congress 2012.