They call them “Instagram vitamins” — those perfectly packaged, oh-so-photogenic elixirs of life popping up on your feed or on the banner ads of your most-visited sites. Discerning viewers may simply be able to scroll by, but for the rest of us? These cool-looking cure-alls are irresistible.
Take, for example, Ritual: The clear, gold-ish capsules assert that, should they become part of your daily routine (hence the name), your life will improve considerably. They’re pretty, they smell and taste like peppermint and their nine ingredient formula promises to be “skin perfecting” and “joy promoting,” among other attractive claims.
Even more targeted: Care/of, as in “for the care of you.” These vitamins are delivered in personalized pouches, filled with supplements predetermined by an online quiz probing your “goals, lifestyle and values.”
Other biggies are HUM Nutrition (another quiz!), formulated specifically for beauty concerns, and OLLY, a rainbow assortment of adult gummies created for sleep, energy, vibrant skin, stress reduction and more.
They’re beautiful. They’re promising. They’re … not FDA-approved.
“Vitamins are kind of a tricky topic,” says Kathleen Johnson, certified nutrition support specialist at the Johns Hopkins Integrative Medicine and Digestive Center. “Dietary supplements aren’t regulated, so the onus is on each business to practice good manufacturing.”
The problem? “It’s a billion-dollar industry. Everyone’s out to make money.” And, Johnson continues, the marketing is “spot-on. Bright colors, happy people, puppies and babies — they’re all there to evoke an emotional response.”
That’s not to say, however, that they’re all peddling snake oil in pretty packaging. Johnson is not necessarily against supplements; in fact, she says she recommends them to 25 percent of patients. For some adults, they are the way around health issues caused or worsened by nutrient deficiencies, imbalances or sensitivities.
“Some people do need vitamins and can benefit from them, but not everyone needs them,” she says. “It’s important that you don’t use them to take the place of a healthy diet.”
If you’re eating well — meaning lots of fruits and vegetables and few processed foods — you should be getting just about everything you need. Supplements are a good solution for those who need more than that, but even in those cases, Johnson advises proceeding with caution.
“Some supplements can interact with medication, and others can make you feel sick, especially iron. Since there’s no real regulation, the companies’ proprietary blends can include whatever they want. You might think of citrus as an antioxidant, for example, but some citrus blends can actually cause women to have more nausea.”
Another technical issue: Your body isn’t always ready for the excess nutrients, she says. Vitamins need different levels of acid for absorption and some vitamins are absorbed in the intestine. The stomach is a very harsh environment, and in those instances, its high acid level can degrade the vitamin and ruin it before your body is able to absorb it.
“In addition, companies may not use the active form of the vitamin when creating supplements, which requires your body to undergo a second step to convert it to the active form that it can use,” she says.
With all that being said, vitamins aren’t the enemy. But Johnson advocates a
simple $12 multivitamin from Costco over the $30/month+ options and their alluring advertising.
“If you don’t need to take it, you shouldn’t take it,” she says. “But for the average person, I don’t think they’re hurting anything.”