“A tree is best measured when it is down,” the poet Carl Sandburg once observed, “and so it is with people.” The recent death of Harry Belafonte at the age of 96 has prompted many assessments of what this pioneering singer-actor-activist accomplished in a long and fruitful life.
Belafonte’s career as a ground-breaking entertainer brought him substantial wealth and fame; according to Playbill magazine, “By 1959, he was the highest paid Black entertainer in the industry, appearing in raucously successful engagements in Las Vegas, New York, and Los Angeles.” He scored on Broadway, winning a 1954 Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical – John Murray Anderson's Almanac. Belafonte was the first Black person to win the prestigious award. A 1960 television special, “Tonight with Belafonte,” brought him an Emmy for Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Musical Program or Series, making him the first Black person to win that award. He found equal success in the recording studio, bringing Calypso music to the masses via such hits as “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell.”
Harry Belafonte - Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) (Live)www.youtube.com
Belafonte’s blockbuster stardom is all the more remarkable for happening in a world plagued by virulent systemic racism. Though he never stopped performing, by the early 1960s he’d shifted his energies to the nascent Civil Right movement. He was a friend and adviser to the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. and, as the New York Times stated, Belafonte “put up much of the seed money to help start the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was one of the principal fund-raisers for that organization and Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center notes that “he helped launch one of Mississippi’s first voter registration drives and provided funding for the Freedom Riders. His activism extended beyond the U.S. as he fought against apartheid alongside Nelson Mandela and Miriam Makeba, campaigned for Mandela’s release from prison, and advocated for famine relief in Africa.” And in 1987, he received an appointment to UNICEF as a goodwill ambassador.
Over a career spanning more than seventy years, Belafonte brought joy to millions of people. He also did something that is, perhaps, even greater: he fostered the hope that a better world for all could be created. And, by his example, demonstrated how we might go about bringing that world into existence.
The sourcing of many vitamin supplements is murky at best.
When exercise and nutrition coach Ryan Andrews was researching his story for Precision Nutrition on how vitamins and minerals in nutritional supplements are sourced, he ran into some interesting—and frankly, ironic—informational barriers.
"I emailed Nature Made about vitamin B-1," Andrews writes. "They said: 'We appreciate your questions concerning our supplements. Nature Made Vitamin B-1 is manufactured in a laboratory from chemicals. It is synthetically made in our manufacturing facilities in Southern California.'"
Nature Made, in other words, is a bit of a misnomer.
Andrews shines a spotlight on the issue of vitamin sourcing in his article as he calls one company after another:
"I called Centrum. They don't have any information on where the nutrients in their products come from. They told me that their 'vitamins are synthetic and the minerals are derived from natural sources.'
I called Bayer (the maker of Flintstone's Vitamins) two times. They didn't provide any response about where their vitamin supplements are derived."
Such is the case with many vitamin supplements — synthetic or partially synthetic, and made, processed, or extracted using a host of petrochemical ingredients — the sourcing of which is on par with the crystal industry in terms of transparency.
Naturopath Robert Thiel told The Australian that many companies use petroleum extracts in the extraction process and use coal tar derivatives, chemically processed sugar, acids, and industrial chemicals when processing their supplements. And while this may sound extreme, it's not all that uncommon, Australia's RMIT University professor of complementary medicine Marc Cohen told the paper. Petrochemicals are also commonly found in cosmetics, shampoos and medicines. Most standard vitamin supplements on the market today are "bio-identical," meaning a supplement is synthetic but mimics nature, with a molecular structure identical to the same nutrients occurring in nature. Manufacturers often prefer this process because of the cost and scarcity of natural resources. Lesley Braun, associate professor of integrative medicine and director of the Blackmores Institute, says rather than slaughter countless cows to get coenzyme Q10, it's made in labs by the Japanese. "It's bio-identical and proven very effective," she says.
But it's also possible to pop a food-based supplement whose origins came from the ground and not a test tube. Whole food supplements are made with blends of concentrated, dehydrated whole foods, sometimes with additional vitamins and minerals. Because the nutrients are combined as they are in natural foods, advocates argue, the body can use and absorb them better than nutrients in isolation.
The drawback of whole food supplements is their relatively low-potency. "The small doses often used in whole-food supplements are unlikely to confer significant benefits, given how easy it is for the body to rapidly use up micronutrients as a result of exercise, insufficient diet, stress, disease, environmental toxins, and genetic weaknesses," Jonathan E. Prousky, ND, chief naturopathic medical officer at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine in Toronto told Delicious Living.
Which brings us back to what probably got you thinking about vitamin supplements in the first place. Are you getting enough? And can a vitamin help make up any deficit?
The USDA reported that the nutrient content of vegetables has fallen since 1973 due to the degradation of soil by fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, irrigation, and other unsustainable farming practices. Of the vitamins we do ingest from whole foods, absorption can be as low as 20 percent. There are some supplements whose benefits have been well-studied, including: folic acid for pregnant women; iron for those with anemia; B-vitamins for those dealing with alcoholism; vitamin D; vitamin C; magnesium and CoQ10. What vitamins won't prevent is cancer or cognitive decline.
"Vitamin supplements have never been shown to provide the cancer and heart disease preventing effects of a healthy diet," David Cutler, MD, family medicine physician at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, CA told Prevention. In fact, the medical journal Annals of Internal Medicine published an article (with the cutting-to-the-chase headline "Enough is Enough: Stop Wasting Money on Vitamin and Mineral Supplements") noting there was no evidence that multivitamins had any effect on cognitive decline, heart disease, cancer, or overall mortality.
In 2006, the final word at the National Institute of Health State-of-the-Science Conference was that, "The present evidence is insufficient to recommend either for or against the use of MVMs [multivitamins/minerals] by the American public to prevent chronic disease." The Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics (AND) recommends that the best nutritional strategy for optimal health and reducing the risk of chronic disease is to eat a wide variety of whole foods. In the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the UDSA made the following recommendations:
- Adults over age 50 should take a vitamin B-12 supplement
- Older adults, people with dark-colored skin, and people who don't get much sunlight exposure should take a vitamin D supplement
- Women who may become pregnant or are already pregnant, and are planning to carry their fetus to term, should take a folic acid supplement
"Taking a multivitamin is not a substitute for healthy eating," Alana Biggers, MD, MPH, assistant professor of clinical medicine at University of Illinois-Chicago College of Medicine told Prevention. The best way to get the vitamins and minerals you need is to eat a well-balanced diet of fruits, veggies, whole grains, and protein.
"The best has always been whole, organic food, in season and locally grown," professor Marc Cohen said. "Nature has being doing its job for years." The closer you can come to consuming nutrients in their natural form, the better, he added.
Exercise common sense in your kitchen and medicine cabinet by balancing a healthy diet with supplements, understanding that the more you can find out about the sources of both, the better.