Schlitz 'Sunshine Vitamin D Beer Can' | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Schlitz 'Sunshine Vitamin D Beer Can'

Wisconsin Historical Museum Object – Feature Story

Schlitz 'Sunshine Vitamin D Beer Can' | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeSchlitz 'Sunshine Vitamin D Beer Can'

Schlitz 'Sunshine Vitamin D Beer Can', 1936

Source: Wisconsin Historical Museum Object 2011.77.1

EnlargeDescription on the can.

Description on the back of the Schlitz 'Sunshine Vitamin D Beer Can', 1936

Source: Wisconsin Historical Museum Object 2011.77.1

Schlitz "Sunshine Vitamin D" Beer Can featuring Continental Can Co.'s new crown top design, 1936. (Museum Object 2011.77.1)

This can of Schlitz "Sunshine Vitamin D" beer, documents the American fascination with vitamins that began shortly after they were discovered in the 1910s and continues to this day.

In September 1935, Schlitz became the first brand of beer sold in Continental Can Co.'s new crown top cans, which could be filled on standard bottling equipment. A few months later, Milwaukee's Joseph Schlitz Brewing Co. put a new product in the cans, a product inspired by one of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's most celebrated researchers, Harry Steenbock.

Breakthrough Increases Vitamin D Content in Food

The University of Wisconsin has a long tradition of vitamin research, growing out of the agriculture school's interest in animal nutrition. In 1913, Elmer V. McCollum led a team that discovered vitamin A in butterfat and cod liver oil, then several years later identified vitamin B complex in whey. In 1924, one of McCollum's former students, biochemistry professor Harry Steenbock, developed a technique for increasing the vitamin D content of food by exposing it to ultraviolet light. Very few foods naturally contain vitamin D, which is essential for preventing the bone-softening disease rickets.

Decision to Patent Vitamin D Technique Creates Controversy

Knowing there would be a commercial market for his method, Steenbock chose to patent it, both to encourage legitimate producers to market more nutritious foods and to prevent unscrupulous ones from selling products as "vitamin D fortified" without any nutritional proof. Steenbock also planned to protect the Wisconsin dairy industry by withholding his process from oleomargarine producers, whose product was deficient in vitamin D. In addition, he hoped the royalties from patent licenses could be used to fund future university research.

Steenbock's decision to patent his technique met determined opposition, both inside the university and without. Many felt that research developed at a public university should be freely shared with the public, and that introducing a profit motive would warp research priorities. Still, enough dubious, unregulated examples applying Steenbock's "healing" method hit the market in the mid-1920s to convince the University of Wisconsin-Madison administration to support patenting the process.

EnlargeSteenbock in the laboratory.

Biochemist Harry Steenbock Working in Lab, 1923

Madison, Wisconsin. Steenbock figured out how to biofortify food with vitamin D by exposing it to ultraviolet light. Source: Photo courtesy of the University of Wisconsin Archives

Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation Established to Oversee Patents

Steenbock was astute enough to realize that administering patents – deciding who should be licensed and under what terms, collecting and investing royalties, and defending the patents in court – was not the proper work of scientists. Having previously lost a chance to patent his vitamin A research due to inaction by the University Board of Regents, Steenbock sought another way. He helped establish the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), an independent organization charged with administering patents issued to university faculty and staff and returning the earnings to the University to fund additional research. Founded in 1927 to oversee Steenbock's patents, WARF was the first organization of its kind in the country.

EnlargeAdvertisement for Schlitz Sunshine Vitamin D beer, 1936

Ad for Schlitz “Sunshine Vitamin D” Beer, 1936

In this advertisement, the description states that "Schlitz in brown bottles and cans gives you the Vitamin D you need for year round vigorous health."

Vitamin D Beer Enters the Market

More than a decade after the first "fortified" products hit the shelves, and nine years after WARF signed its first license with the Quaker Oats Company, the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Co. introduced its "Sunshine Vitamin D" beer. This was almost certainly the brand touted in the April 1936 issue of Modern Brewer magazine.. In "Vitamania: Vitamins in American Culture", author Rima Apple reported that "WARF's board considered demanding that the magazine admit 'the fallacy of incorporating Vitamin D in beer.'" Steenbock, however, advised against it.

Since WARF's founding, vitamin D enrichment had become common, and the need to police the field had diminished. Steenbock wrote on page 50: no longer is advisable for the Foundation to assume an ultraidealistic attitude. […], if the public should demand vitamin D in its beer, there is no reason why the Foundation should not provide it - because it may do some good and it most certainly will not do any harm.

Whether vitamin D beer did any good for its drinkers is unknown, but it evidently wasn't profitable for the company. Schlitz Vitamin D beer stayed on the market for only a few years, from 1936 to about 1938.

[Source: Rima D. Apple, "Vitamania: Vitamins in American Culture" (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1996)]


Posted on April 02, 2012