When The Government Advertised Vitamin Donuts For Health

“I bought a doughnut and they gave me a receipt for the doughnut. I don’t need a receipt for the doughnut. I’ll just give you the money, and you give me the doughnut, end of transaction. We don’t need to bring ink and paper into this.” —Mitch Hedberg

In A Nutshell

Vitamins are everywhere, and the whole vitamin craze got started in the 1940s. During World War II, the US government wanted to make sure its citizens were getting all the nutrition they needed to support the war effort and keep the home fires burning. The idea of vitamin-enhanced foods like Vitamin Donuts (and even vitamin-enhanced tobacco) took off, and we haven’t looked back since.

The Whole Bushel

Head to any shopping mall and you’re guaranteed to find at least a couple of stores that are selling nothing but vitamins, supplements, powders, and miracle muscle-builders. We’re obsessed with diet pills and caffeine capsules, protein shakes and high-nutrition smoothies. That’s nothing new. Decades ago, they had vitamin donuts.

During World War II, the US government was worried that its people on the home front weren’t getting all the nutrition they needed to stay at the top of their game and fight the good fight from home. In order to keep those home fires burning, we looked at new and creative ways to get around wartime rationing, as well as some pretty fun ways to make sure kids and adults alike were getting all their vitamins.

Studies done in the early 1940s seemed to back up the importance of one vitamin in particular—B1, or thiamine. At the 1941 National Nutrition Conference for Defense, scientists called it the vitamin that made “life seem tremendously worth living,” and it was one of the vitamins that kicked off the supplement revolution that we’re still in the middle of today.

According to the research, thiamine was responsible for giving people everything from improved attitude and good digestion to a healthy complexion. The New York Times called it the “morale” vitamin, and it was supposedly responsible for giving us all the energy we needed to get through the day and perform at our peak capacity.

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The supposed findings spawned a huge movement for thiamine-enhanced products. Patents were even taken out on thiamine-enhanced tobacco, but our favorite is still the Vitamin Donuts. Posters featuring pretty standard-looking, plain donuts and slightly manic-looking children advertised Vitamin Donuts “For Pep and Vigor.” The donuts were supposedly enhanced “with a minimum of 25 units of Vitamin B1,” and it went without saying that it was your patriotic duty to start your morning off right with some pep donuts.

While that’s one diet trend we can definitely get on board with, it wasn’t without its controversy. Wording became important, and after much debate, it was determined that the government-sanctioned donuts were only to be marketed as “enriched flour doughnuts” rather than vitamin donuts, as it was the flour that had been enriched with the vitamins.

Minor details.

Thiamine continued to support the idea of the vitamin revolution, and during a time of rationing and wartime shortages, it’s easy to see why people could have legitimate concerns about nutrition. Thiamine deficiencies were also linked to a condition called beriberi, which meant swollen feet, increased swelling and pressure on the ribs, and eventual suffocation. Pretty horrible stuff, so it’s completely understandable that people went mad for their vitamins.

And it hasn’t stopped yet. If the idea that Vitamin Donuts seems crazy, even crazier is the current number of products on the market as vitamins, somewhere around 85,000, as of 2015. And, because the FDA doesn’t regulate supplements, they don’t keep track of what’s in them or what we’re potentially putting in our bodies, or what kind of side effects and drug interactions happen.

We’ll take a dozen Vitamin Donuts, thanks.

Show Me The Proof

Wall Street Journal: Talismans Of Vitality
Nutrient Reference Values: Thiamin
US National Archives Exhibits: Vitamin Donuts