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Unpacking The Designer Vitamin Trend
09.24.18

M

y current vitamin routine includes a grassy prenatal with iron; zinc for acne; magnesium for RLS; biotin for split ends; and a chalky, chewable B12 that tastes like cherry Kool-Aid and dirt. I have a box of Brain Dust gathering literal dust on top of my fridge, and I put turmeric in my oatmeal every morning. If a snake-oil salesman promised a mushroom tincture could help me finish my novel, I’d happily fork over three simple installments of $69.99. Basically, if you’ve got a supplement to sell, I’m your target market.

I’m not alone: More than half of all Americans take daily vitamin supplements. It’s not hard to figure out why this is. We feel bad, tired, lazy. We can’t lose weight even though we’re told we should; our skin doesn’t glow no matter what we slather on it. And in this age of quick-fixes —someone else can make our dinner, bring it to our doorstep, assemble a bookcase while there — it makes sense that we’d embrace magic pills as a panacea for our nutritional needs.

The current wave of millennial, customized vitamins by brands like GOOP, Care/of, Olly, and Ritual claim they’ve revolutionized how we care for our bodies and minds. Yet study after study has proven vitamin supplements to be ineffective at best, and downright dangerous at worst. So how much of this new wave is genuine innovation, and how much of it is simply enterprising individuals who know that a good logo can trick anyone into blindly forking over their dollars in the name of “easy” self-improvement? Are vitamins actually good for us?

“What it really comes down to is that it is possible for people to get adequate amounts of essential nutrients by consuming the proper foods,” says Carol Haggans, registered dietician (R.D.) and consultant with the Office of Dietary Supplements. Most medical professionals, she says, will only recommend supplements if an individual is unable to get what their body requires from natural or fortified sources.

“There are a few situations where supplements are specifically recommended,” says Haggans, but those are limited and specific. These include iron and folic acid for pregnant women (it’s difficult to get sufficient amounts from food alone), and B12 supplements for adults over 50 and vegetarians or vegans (B12 is one of the few vitamins that is better absorbed from fortified foods or supplements than from natural sources).

And yet the global dietary supplements market is expected to reach $278 billion by 2024—a sign the unsubstantiated research, unverifiable claims, and incessant marketing (that preys on the sinking feeling that we’re just one secret pill away from perfection) is definitely working. In truth, what we know about vitamins is far outstripped by what we believe we know. Vitamin companies use that knowledge gap and our persistent vulnerability to their advantage: Ritual, for example — an online supplement company with a charmingly mod aesthetic that sells an “obsessively researched” multivitamin for women — claims that “90% of women (even the healthiest) don’t get the health-vital nutrients they need daily.” (In a statement provided by the brand, this claim is based on the research of their in-house scientific team, peer-reviewed articles, and gene variants that impact our individual ability to absorb essential nutrients.)

Ritual and other similar brands are able to make such claims because of an industry-wide lack of regulation. A 1994 law instructed the FDA to treat supplements like foods, rather than drugs. What that means is that while drugs have to be proven safe and effective before going to market, dietary supplements don’t. Companies are prohibited from marketing a product that has been proven unsafe, and cannot claim a product will cure or prevent a disease, but, beyond that, they can say pretty much whatever they want regarding the quality, potential effects, and ingredients of their supplements. This gives brands an incredible amount of wiggle room: A 2015 audit of major vitamin suppliers including Target and Walmart, for example, found that nearly 80 percent of pills tested didn’t include the labeled ingredient, and were contaminated with fillers like rice, mustard and wheat.

New “designer” vitamin brands are seizing on this market vulnerability with claims of rigorous testing. Ritual, for example, not only follows the FDA guidelines but also engages in “third-party testing for potency of active ingredients, adulterants like heavy metals and microbes, allergens, rancidity and other unwanted contaminants” and claim a “fully traceable supply chain.” However, the fact remains that there’s a big difference in transparency between, say, a handful of zinc-rich organic lentils and a small white tablet labeled “Zinc.”

Supplements play a role only when we need them to accessorize the diet.

“We have no real way of knowing that what the bottle claims to be in the pill is actually in the pill,” says Brigitte Zeitlin, R.D., owner of BZ Nutrition in New York City. “That vitamin C supplement may actually have more sugar or fillers than actual vitamin C. But if you eat a cup of strawberries, you know for a fact how much vitamin C you are getting.” And that cup of strawberries provides important minerals and fiber that will help your body better absorb and use that vitamin C; taken independently, Zeitlin says, many vitamins will simply pass through your system without being absorbed. “Personally, I believe in a whole-foods approach to health, meaning eating veggies, fruits, whole grains, legumes, lean protein to get all of your essential vitamins and minerals. Supplements play a role only when we need them to accessorize the diet.”

So is there anything actually new about this “trendy” crop of vitamin brands?

According to journalist Catherine Price, whose book Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food explored the rise of supplements, not much. Care/of, which has been described as “the Glossier of vitamins,” ships adorable personalized vitamins to its growing consumer base, promising individualized supplements tailored to your particular concerns. “These brands are employing absolutely brilliant marketing gimmicks,” says Price, “playing off of people’s desire for personalization, and taking advantage of restrictions that Congress has placed on the FDA. They’re basically coming up with a supplement equivalent of a horoscope.”

My own Care/of recommendation included a B complex vitamin, prenatal, and probiotic—all supplements I’ve taken, and have had recommended to me by my primary care physician—but Care/of doesn’t know that.

“I’d recommend that potential customers ask themselves whether they would be as trusting of the company if it were coming up with a personalized box of prescription drugs (or even over-the-counter),” says Price. “Most people wouldn’t be into that idea, because everyone knows that drugs have side effects and contraindications and are potentially dangerous. Well, if a dietary supplement is actually doing something in your body, there is a chance that it is going to have negative effects. It’s very much a buyer-beware situation.”

The negative (or negligible) effects of supplements are, in fact, more conclusive than the positive. In a recent study, researchers failed to find any positive cardiovascular benefits from multivitamins and vitamin C, D, or calcium supplements. In another instance, high doses of beta-carotene, long thought to be helpful in reducing cancer rates, actually increased instances of lung cancer in male smokers. And as all of the medical practitioners I spoke to pointed out, all vitamin and mineral supplements can be dangerous in large quantities. Mega doses of iron, for example, can cause liver cancer, diabetes, and even death.

Also problematic? Supplements of this type are targeted to women, sold to them by influencers who advertise pink gummy vitamins as the secret to their unfiltered glow. They’re restricted to those who have the disposable income to invest in wellness; women who are actually best-positioned to get all the nutrients they need from whole-food sources, and who are disproportionately wealthy and insured. The wellness game has consistently shut out those who are most in need, such as lower-income individuals living in food deserts. “I personally find it hysterical that Alex Jones has a line of very expensive, cleverly named supplements—and that some of them are very similar to those marketed by GOOP,” says Price. “But I’m willing to guess that someone who buys Gwyneth’s ‘Why Am I’m So Effin’ Tired’ supplement would not buy supplements from Alex Jones (and vice versa), even if they contained the exact same ingredients.”

This isn’t to say that supplements can’t be immensely helpful when used to address a clear and diagnosed medical need, but bottom line? Talk to your healthcare provider before taking anything. Make sure you tell them what supplements you are taking or thinking of taking when they ask about medications,” says Haggans, the consultant with the Office of Dietary Supplements. And if you doctor does recommend a supplement, ask them for their preferred brand; organizations like the United States Pharmacopeia, the National Science Foundation, and Consumerlab.com also independently verify the contents of certain brands, so look for products that bear these certification seals. Finally, the National Institutes of Health’s label database and fact sheets provide detailed information about product contents that you can use when assessing risk versus reward.

And the next time find yourself pausing Instagram for some pleasingly-minimalist vitamin spon con, remember Haggan’s sage advice: “Generally, if you are taking a multivitamin, there’s no good reason to stop. And if you’re not taking one? There’s no good reason to start.”

*Update 1o/5: Ritual didn’t initially reply to my request for comment, but the brand offered its perspective after the piece went live. It’s been incorporated above. Care/of did not respond to requests for comment.

Collage by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.

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