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Are Personalized Vitamins Actually Worth It?

personalized-vitamins.jpgPhoto: Africa Studio / Shutterstock

Let's be real: The drugstore vitamin aisle can be a super-overwhelming place. From giant, chalky pills to brightly colored gummies that taste like candy, vitamins come in so many forms and formulations that it can feel impossible to know which ones are best for you—or if you would even benefit from swallowing them.

That's why a new crop of companies is looking to disrupt the $80 billion vitamin industry. They're proffering vitamins that are more personalized, more convenient, and even (like all other health trends these days) more Instagram-worthy. (Hi, unicorn food.)

You won't find these new vitamin brands in your neighborhood drugstore, though. They're selling mostly direct-to-consumer (just like your favorite new mattress and electric toothbrush), and they're using unique techniques to catch customers' attention. Example: You've likely seen the personalized packs on your Insta feed or in the hands of your favorite wellness blogger.

All in all, it seems like getting and staying healthy just got much easier, right? Eh, not so fast.

First, let's rewind: Do you even need a multivitamin? The verdict is still out, but most of the research says no. "There's little evidence to suggest a daily multivitamin supplement plays a prominent role in improving overall health and well-being," says Paul Salter, M.S., R.D., nutrition editor at Bodybuilding.com and founder of Fit In Your Dress. An often-cited 2012 review of studies showed that 40 to 50 percent of men and women age 50 years and older regularly take a multivitamin, and concluded there is no overall benefit from taking a multivitamin supplement.

It's worth noting that this particular study has its flaws, says Arielle Levitan, M.D., author of The Vitamin Solution: Two Doctors Clear the Confusion About Vitamins and Your Health. "It looked at large groups of people taking generic multivitamins with little accounting for the fact that many stopped taking them," she explains. "They also only looked at mortality as an endpoint."

Now, other research shows that certain vitamins do improve mortality if taken thoughtfully for the right people in the right setting, she notes. That's why a more personalized approach to the multivitamin is a sounder strategy.

The Perks of Personalized Vitamins

That's where customization comes into play. "Most of us do need to supplement with a combination of vitamins, but the amounts and the vitamins vary from person to person based on their diets, lifestyle, and health considerations," Dr. Levitan says. (Ex: Many active women are short on magnesium.)

Even if you don't need to take a big, fat multivitamin every day, you may be lacking in certain nutrients for your specific health needs—and, yes, you're likely still falling short even if you eat a "healthy" diet. (Just read this dietitian's essay about why you can't get everything you need from food.) That being said, recommending that everyone take the same thing probably isn't the answer, explains Dr. Levitan.

To account for various lifestyle and gender factors, many of these new companies offer quizzes that help determine which vitamins or supplements are right for you.

When you visit the website of Vitamin Packs, Care/Of, or VitaMe, for example, you'll be greeted with a quiz. The questions will inquire about your basic stats (age, gender, where you live) and lifestyle choices (do you eat red meat? how often do you exercise?), along with your health goals and current concerns (digestive distress, energy levels, skin issues, etc.). Then they recommend the right vitamin(s) for you. According to Salter, this is "a clever and creative strategy that is beneficial because nutrient needs are impacted by age, exercise, and diet habits."

Gender plays a part, too, since women have unique nutrient needs, especially in different stages of life. (That's why one new company, Ritual, is like a "no boys allowed" vitamins club; they claim to have narrowed down their formula to only the essential nutrients that women need.)

For instance, women need more iron than men do, since they lose iron during their menstrual cycles each month, as well as during pregnancies, says Salter. Women also have a greater need for calcium, since they have a faster cell turnover rate than men, he notes. The requirements are different during your reproductive years too, says Lauren Manaker, M.S., R.D.N., L.D., owner of Nutrition Now. Folate, in particular, is a must for women who are pregnant or trying to conceive, and you may not be getting enough from a generic multi, she notes. 

Other helpful supplements you may find in a personalized vitamin pack? Probiotics. "Certain probiotic strains can offer a host of benefits for women who have digestive issues," says Manaker. (Here: Find the Best Probiotic for You in 3 Steps) However, "If you notice indigestion after meals (gas, bloating, heartburn), you might want to consider taking a digestive enzyme instead," says Alissia Zenhausern, N.M.D., a naturopathic doctor at Wellness of Scottsdale. "They help your body properly digest your food and absorb key nutrients in your diet."  Another key nutrient many people miss in a basic multi: vitamin D. Many people don't realize they might be deficient, even if they live somewhere where the sun's always shining. "I practice in sunny Arizona, and 80 percent of my patients are vitamin D deficient," Zenhausern notes. Your personalized vitamin could hook you up with any—or all—of these, depending on what you might need.

Where Personalized Vitamins Fall Short

However, some health professionals believe these personalized quizzes are just a clever marketing strategy without a ton of substance. (You know, like those Buzzfeed quizzes that tell you which '90s cartoon character you are.)

"These online questionnaires are a good starting point, but in my opinion, nothing replaces micronutrient testing and a consultation with a registered dietitian," says Manaker. (FYI: Micronutrient labs can be drawn like any routine blood test, and can provide accurate markers for levels of certain micronutrients and vitamins. Depending on the provider ordering it, these tests can be costly, she notes.)

"It's great that these supplement companies are using recent research for micronutrient recommendations specifically for women's issues, but the recommendations are being generalized," says Manaker. She likens the "free supplement evaluation" to the concept of "free interior design" offered in a lot of furniture stores: "Their 'free' service often leads to sales of their furniture." In other words, these companies will only recommend products that they sell, and therefore the "free" evaluation is more often a marketing plan. However, "I do think it is better than randomly ordering supplements online with no knowledge base of what is needed," she notes.

Also, be aware that many herbal supplements are not studied extensively, and therefore a lot of the side effects are unknown, says Manaker. "Although they are 'natural' and some may offer a benefit, others may interact with certain medications and cause more harm than good." (Here are five tips for buying herbal medicine safely.)

Finally, to keep in mind before you buy: "Always consult your physician before taking any medications or supplements," says Zenhausern. Just like any medication, supplements and vitamins should always be taken after consulting with your physician as they too have possible side effects and risks.

Also, look past the shiny, Instagram-ready marketing techniques, Zenhausern suggests, and dig into the research, testing, and quality behind the brand's products instead. Make sure they disclose all purity, safety, and testing methods, and look for what is listed at the bottom of the label as "other ingredients," says Zenhausern. "Make sure no synthetic fillers or food colorings are used to make the vitamins look more appealing." Look out for artificial colors (Blue No. 1, 2, or 3, Red No. 3 or 40, or Yellow No 5 or 6), as well as partially hydrogenated soybean oil, which is a major filler found in the majority of vitamins. Lead, mercury and PBCs (polychlorinated biphenyls) can be found in fish oils, and should also be avoided, Zenhausern notes.

Still want to ditch your generic multi for a personalized product? Here's a rundown of the major players on the market to check out.

Personalized Vitamin Companies

  • Care/Of: Take this company's quiz to answer a series of questions—including basic stats, health goals, and lifestyle habits—and they'll build you a personalized daily vitamin pack geared to address your specific concerns.
  • Ritual: These pretty pills aren't exactly personalized, but they're said to contain only the nine most essential nutrients for women's health, backed by the latest scientific data. They're also gluten-free and vegan, and are scented with peppermint—a millennial-friendly multi, if you will.
  • Goop Wellness: The Gwyneth Paltrow–backed wellness site provides vitamin and supplement protocols for four health issues many modern women face (for example: "Why am I so effing tired?"). They're all created from carefully "sourced and tested ingredients."
  • VitaMe: Here, you'll take a health quiz that collects data about your lifestyle, diet, and health goals and cross-checks with scientific data to recommend your optimal nutrition plan. Your vitamins are delivered to your door every month.
  • Zenamins: Choose exactly which vitamins, minerals, and supplements you want or they can help guide you to suggest a pack. They'll custom pack your vitamins into mini-packs, which you can tear off when you travel.
  • HUM Nutrition: HUM is a "beauty vitamin brand" whose mission is to help consumers "look and feel their best by providing clinically proven products." They also offer free access to registered dieticians who can provide support, advice, and personalized recommendations via the website.
  • Multiply Labs: They'll design a single-capsule vitamin that contains everything you need, using "scientific research and innovative technology" to ensure that your personalized capsule is safe and effective.
  • Vitamin Packs: Fill out a questionnaire about your current health and lifestyle, and their algorithm will comb through the latest research and expertise to give you a personalized recommendation. If you're unsure about the rec, you can chat with one of their nutritionists right on the site. They also offer a pre/post natal vitamin, as well as "Foundational Multi" that contains a naturally sourced K2, which 80 percent of people are deficient in but which isn't found in most generic brands' multis.
  • Vous Vitamins: Created by two physicians, this brand's online quiz asks the same questions they'd discuss with patients during an in-office visit in order to recommend vitamins that are medically sound and meet their individual needs.

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