It's raining. Flooding, to be precise. But business is as brisk as ever at Mrs. Gooch's natural-foods market in West Los Angeles. As usual, traffic is backed up along Palms Boulevard as drivers wait for a spot in the store's parking lot. Inside, crowds jam the supplement section, which gleams with row upon row of small, white-capped vials. Here the true believers in the gospel of vitamins linger over labels, comparing brand names and dosages, trading health sermons and nutritional arcana. They discuss the relative merits of Buffered C and Lysine, as opposed to Bio-C Plus Rose Hips, or perhaps Bio- Absorbate Vitamin C Complex capsules. There are no fewer than 10 types and dosages of vitamin C to choose from, not to mention eight of vitamin E.
Maryanne Latimer is among the faithful. A middle-age massage therapist, she has been plagued by chronic fatigue syndrome and has therefore expanded her usual menu of vitamins and minerals. She shops at Mrs. Gooch's about once a week, in addition to other vitamin shops. "I take tons of vitamin C and E," she admits, plus calcium and a daily vitamin-mineral complex. Recently she added to her regimen three tablets a day of pantothenic acid (a lesser-known vitamin) "to help me wake up." Basically, says Latimer, "I'm looking for anything to make me feel better."
But for every true believer in the power of vitamins -- and the U.S. has more devotees than any other country -- there is an agnostic, a skeptic who insists that vitamins are the opiate of the people. Among the doubters are many doctors. They have been persuaded by decades of public-health pronouncements, endorsed by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the National Institutes of Health, that claim people can get every nutrient they need from the food they eat. Popping vitamins "doesn't do you any good," sniffs Dr. Victor Herbert, a professor of medicine at New York City's Mount Sinai medical school. "We get all the vitamins we need in our diets. Taking supplements just gives you expensive urine."
Wavering in confusion between these two schools of thought are the vast majority of Americans, wondering whom to believe. They have heard the gospel % of vitamin C as preached by the great chemist Linus Pauling, but they have also heard him ridiculed by health authorities. They may feed their children chewable vitamin tablets, but they question whether the pills are worth the high price. "I'd be thrilled to know what's right and to have someone tell me what to do," says Jane Traulsen, a mother of two who lives in White Plains, N.Y. "But all the information is so contradictory. It's like trying to make your way through a fog."
But now, thanks to new research, the haze is beginning to lift. And it unveils a surprise: more and more scientists are starting to suspect that traditional medical views of vitamins and minerals have been too limited. While researchers may not endorse the expansive claims of hard-core vitamin enthusiasts, evidence suggests that the nutrients play a much more complex role in assuring vitality and optimal health than was previously thought. Vitamins -- often in doses much higher than those usually recommended -- may protect against a host of ills ranging from birth defects and cataracts to heart disease and cancer. Even more provocative are glimmerings that vitamins can stave off the normal ravages of aging.