4 Things Health Experts Want You to Know About the Surge of ‘Custom’ Supplements

Is there substance behind the cute packaging and convincing health claims?
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Is there substance behind the cute packaging and convincing health claims?

It seems like everywhere you look these days—from Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop vitamins to the one-size-fits-all Ritual capsule to the bottles lining Target shelves—someone else is selling custom-blended supplements purported to solve the nutritional issues that people encounter most. Energy boosts, a sharper mind, belly fat loss, and even improved sex drive are just a few of the supposed benefits of popping a pack of pills each day.

Taking your vitamins sounds like healthy advice, but is it medicine or marketing behind the supplement industry boom? 

We went to the experts for their input on whether we should add them to our health regimens or not. The results weren’t unanimous, but there are four things our pair of doctors and a nutritionist did agree on that you should know about before you choose to get on this buzzing bandwagon.

01. “Custom supplement’ is essentially a marketing term.

Board-certified gastroenterologist Dr. Lawrence Hoberman defines custom supplements as a product, “developed by the manufacturer based on specific ingredients and amount, excipients [substances to stabilize the product to lengthen shelf life or improve absorpancy], and packaging" as requested by the company that is selling the product. The consumer ultimately determines which customized supplement is right for her, so “custom” is something of a misnomer. And clinical nutritionist Stella Metsovas, CCN, says, “The word 'custom' is generally not a safe term to use in health. So there is no real definition [for these types of supplements] unless you’re a marketer.”

02. A diet of whole foods—not supplements—should be the primary step to a healthy lifestyle.

When deciding whether to take supplements, Dr. Hoberman suggests first evaluating your diet. “If it’s well balanced with fruits, protein, and vegetables, then it is likely you don’t need a supplement unless you have a specific health issue that requires additional vitamin supplementation,” like folic acid for pregnant women or vitamin D for adults who are deficient.

Metsovas acknowledges that food comes first but she also recognizes the potential in vitamins as an additional—or, properly supplemental—source of nutrients. “I see value in multivitamins, but they will never replace nutrient-dense whole foods.” What you take depends on your age and lifestyle, she says. For young adults up to age 35, she says the focus should be on prevention. “Look for a whole food based multivitamin, digestive support through prebiotics and probiotics; essential fatty acids are crucial as well.” Thereafter, every individual’s needs will differ based on his or her history and lab work.

Dr. Morton Tavel, MD, Clinical Professor Emeritus of Medicine at Indiana University School of Medicine, recommends evaluating your diet and basing any supplement intake on what you’re already getting, but for a different reason. “Clinical trials repeatedly fail to show a benefit of multivitamin supplements to healthy people,” he says. “But even worse, they can, under certain circumstances, be risky: Both vitamin A and calcium can be dangerous if taken in excess, especially when added to a normal diet.”

03. Supplements are not regulated the same way drugs are.

A 2013 Consumer Reports survey showed that about half of Americans don’t know that supplements are not regulated by the FDA in the same way prescription and over-the-counter medications are. Dr. Hoberman notes that there is also not a standardization for what a multivitamin supplement must contain.

Dr. Tavel writes, “A major difference between a drug and a dietary supplement is that dietary supplements may not claim to ‘diagnose, cure, mitigate, treat, or prevent specific illnesses.’ Consequently, dietary supplement manufacturers can make only general ‘structure/function’ claims, which are often vaguely worded assertions of health benefits such as ‘support the body’s natural defenses,’ ‘promote heart health,’ ‘better circulation,’ ‘increased energy,’ ‘better joint health and mobility,’ etc.”

04. If you’re going to invest in supplementing your health, do this instead.

Metsovas says that if you're interested in customization, you should actually look into “getting your annual lab work combined with out-of-pocket expenses like sequencing your microbiome (taking a sample of your gut bacteria) or looking into your DNA,” for $89 and $199, respectively. You can use your results to address a symptom or learn more about health issues such as lactose intolerance and genetic weight. If these tests don’t fit into your budget, ask your doctor or a certified nutritionist (services are often available at gyms, sometimes even at grocery stores) for his or her recommendation based on your current health and lifestyle.

Photo Credit: Andrew Welch