Ridiculous History: Vitamin Donuts Were a Thing?

vitamin donuts, doughnuts
Detail of Doughnut Corporation of America poster for its failed "health-food" campaign in the 1940s. Scroll down to see the full poster. National Archives and Records Administration

We've probably all seen some of the insane early ads for cigarettes, i.e. "More Doctors Smoke Camels Than Any Other Cigarette" or "Much Milder Chesterfield Is Best for You." But through the years there have also been equally crazy advertisements for food.

Take doughnuts, for example. Back in the early '40s, the Doughnut Corporation of America—the biggest doughnut maker of the time—tried pushing a product called Vitamin Donuts. (Yes, Vitamin Donuts.) Marketing food products as enriched with synthesized vitamins was (and still is) a popular trend, and the company tried jumping on that bandwagon. (Kellogg's used similar marketing for one of its cereals, and other companies like Libby's and Birds Eye frozen foods based entire campaigns around the idea.)


The Doughnut Corporation of America produced this poster for its failed health-food campaign in the 1940s.
National Archives and Records Administration

The nutrition division of the U.S. government's War Food Administration even awarded its seal of approval to companies whose nutrition claims it approved. And that's where the Doughnut Corporation hit a snag. 

Because the doughnuts were made with enriched white flour, the nutrition division didn't consider the doughnuts themselves enriched with vitamins – only the flour they were made from was enriched. So the doughnuts had to be marketed simply as, well... doughnuts.

And by no means is enriched white flour, which all doughnuts are made with, a superfood. "The process of enriching flour only adds back some nutrients that are lost in the refining process," saysJessica Cox, a wellness dietitian at Birmingham, Alabama health and wellness center St. Vincent's One Nineteen. The nutrients added to the flour include iron, thiamine, niacin, riboflavin and folic acid.

"As much as I would love for them to be healthy," she says, "I would not consider doughnuts made with enriched white flour a healthy source of nutrients. Doughnuts are made using only refined white flour, and these refined carbohydrates have been shown to be worse for your health than saturated fats."

So the nutrition division wanted the Doughnut Corporation to label their product Enriched Flour Donuts instead. Well, apparently that just didn't sound too appealing to consumers, so no more Vitamin Donuts, though the Doughnut Corporation enjoyed decades of business and acted as an advocate for the industry and snack. Guess that's the way the donut crumbles.

Even though the Vitamin Donut campaign was eventually scrapped, Allison Cox Vasquez, a pastry chef and editor of the cookbook "Simply Sweet Decked-Out Donuts," thinks the marketing gimmick probably put the company way ahead of its time.

"While silly, it's not unheard of now to tout foods as everything from entertaining to cancer-fighting," she says. "[These are] often claims that are unsubstantiated, but still alluring. And I think there's nothing wrong with a little bite of heavenly indulgence once and a while, with or without a health incentive. Whatever excuse you need to give in to a crispy, glazed, hot doughnut, I'm all for it!"