The vitamin aisles of your local retail store are an intimidating place fraught with many dangerous products. There is minimal regulation and limited FDA oversight of the vitamin industry, which means that consumers can never be certain what is contained in their over-the-counter products. A recent article in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) revealed shocking things were found when many off-the-shelf vitamins and supplements were analyzed. Nearly 800 products were found to contain prescription medications or illicit ingredients. This is frightening stuff!
It is not uncommon for supplements labeled to promote “weight loss” or “energy” to contain dangerous stimulants. In a similar fashion, many supplements that boast improving sexual function contain illicit ingredients that are found in prescription medications for erectile disfunction. Moreover, we see supplements touted for helping cholesterol, contain substances that are identical to the statin drugs we prescribe for cholesterol and cardiac issues. It is not surprising that the New England Journal of Medicine published an article showing that nearly 25,000 emergency room admissions each year are attributable to dietary supplements.
In the vitamin aisles or online marketplaces, the consumer is on their own with vitamin shopping. There is no navigation, and consumers apply their own “Do-It-Yourself” (DIY) tactics to the shopping experience. Many consumers base their decisions off recommendations from friends, celebrities, or magazine articles. Very few retailers have implementing testing protocols for the brands on the shelf. Many supplements are manufactured abroad with questionable quality practices. This is a recipe for disaster.
Remediating Safety Concerns with Personalized Vitamins
A new class of digital companies have created a navigated shopping experience that can get the consumer to a safer and more targeted set of products. These personalized vitamin brands have built websites that assess the consumer upfront and then navigates them to a prescribed set of solutions that match their individual profiles. Not all personalized vitamin brands are created equal, so it is important to understand the critical differences taken to approaching safety.
The personalized vitamin landscape can be divided into three classes: 1) personalized pill packs; 2) liquid mixes; and 3) custom all-in-one vitamin supplements. Starting with personalized pill packs, these companies offer an online assessment coupled with a packaging innovation to bundle together individual supplements in daily serving packets. Many of these brands create flexibility for consumers to build their own packs or add-in supplements that are not recommended. The safety concerns with this approach stem from overprescribing and self-prescribing. It is not uncommon for personalized pill pack companies to recommend 10+ daily pills and powders at a cost of more than $100 per month. Not only is this unsustainable and unaffordable for most consumers, it raises questions around over-dosing or taking supplements that have a limited evidence basis. The self-prescribing aspects of pill packs are no different from DIY-approaches in the vitamin aisles. A consumer does not often know what is medically sound.
The second class of personalized vitamin companies are liquid mixes, such as pre-blended smoothies or Keurig-style vitamin coffees. A large portion of consumers will initially struggle with the taste profile of drinking “vita-sludge” first thing in the morning. For consumers that can tolerate drinking their vitamins, there are questions of self-mixing your own vitamin cocktails, and whether the dosing if right for you. Also, for consumers that actually like the taste, there may be risks of overconsumption, particularly with smoothies, as has been seen in the gummy vitamin segment. For some of these solutions that do not come in bottles that need to meet FDA labeling requirements, there are questions about dosages and sourcing of ingredients that may be unanswered.
Finally, there are personalized all-in-one vitamins. Finding a company that will manufacture a custom pill is a good path for safety purposes. These companies are thinking carefully about dosing and integration of ingredients to promote absorption. They are also considering long-term adherence and sustainable vitamin routines. For example, a personalized all-in-one vitamin may cost $30 per month compared to $80 per month for a personalized smoothie or $100 per month for a personalized pill pack. The consumer is paying a premium compared to off-the-shelf products, but they are getting a premium product with structured composition of nutrients. It is much easier to take a single personalized vitamin as opposed to a handful of pills of different shapes and sizes. Plus, the personalized single pill companies often do not let the consumer intervene in their recommendations to change the formula. This mitigates risks around self-prescribing. The pill format is advantageous to gummy vitamins or liquid mixes that can promote overconsumption of daily vitamins.
Finding the Personalized Vitamin Brand that Will Ensure Safety
There are a few indicators of quality that will help you to select your personalized vitamin brand. First, look who is behind the brand. Is it founded by physicians or marketers? Is there real published research, or a book associated with the brand that has garnered recognition or awards from reputable sources? Next, consider whether there are observable quality indicators, such as certified Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) or seal of domestic manufacturing (Made in the USA). Finally, pay attention to how the brand interacts with customers. Are there indications that customer service is responsive as seen through testimonials or reviews? Does that brand have a commitment to transparency and ongoing education? The vitamin shopping experience is confusing, and the mass market does not make it any easier with an overwhelming array of options and everything put on sale. Most vitamin brands are trying to upsell and get you to take the most pills and powders, regardless of whether they are tailored to your need. The advantage of a personalized vitamin brand is that they will assess you and try to match you with a customized routine. There are different models of personalization, so find the type that best matches your ability to stick with it. Fairly soon, we will move out of the mass market mentality into a personalized paradigm, and you can start that process today by finding your ideal partner brand.