Are Those Trendy Vitamins Really Safe?

Photographed by Megan Madden.
These days, essentially every trendy brand prides itself on giving customers "only what you need, and nothing you don't," with no middleman, from the finest materials out available. Blame Everlane, Glossier, or seemingly authentic podcast ads, but we're all suddenly purists when it comes to shopping. And recently, a slew of vitamin companies for millennials have tried to use this marketing tactic to appear more transparent about what ingredients go into a tiny pill.
Ritual, for example, is a multivitamin brand that was launched "for skeptics by skeptics." Their website (which, by the way, has a minimalist layout that's like catnip for millennials) says: "We believe in simplicity, traceability, and ingredients that work best in the body. You deserve to know exactly what you’re getting and where it’s coming from." That sounds comforting, because supplements are notoriously not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. But then again, how pure and transparent can a company actually be if there's no one holding them accountable?
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What many people don't understand is that the FDA isn't "authorized" to review dietary supplements for safety and effectiveness before they go to market, a FDA representative told Refinery29. They define dietary supplements as any product that contains at least one dietary ingredient, is ingested, is intended to supplement the diet, and is clearly labeled as such. According to the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, supplement companies are responsible for evaluating the safety of their ingredients and labeling them appropriately.
"Our scientists always say, it's kind of like having stop signs and laws, but very few police in a way," says Katerina Schneider, CEO and founder of Ritual. At Ritual, they work with their facilities to comply with the Current Good Manufacturing Practices (CGMP), which are basically rules that the FDA made. (Usually products that are GMP compliant will have a label or seal.) They also perform third-party testing for potency, purity, identity, composition, and allergens, she says. And they clearly communicate where ingredients are sourced on their website.
In a perfect world, the supplement companies would follow all these guidelines and create a safe product. But since that's not always the case, once a supplement is on the market, the FDA analyzes the safety of the dietary ingredients through purity and quality testing, and they can pull any products that are "misbranded, adulterated, or otherwise unsafe," according to the FDA. For example, in 2016, there was a big lawsuit involving GNC, the dietary supplement store, because the FDA found that they were allegedly selling illegal supplements from a company in China. GNC settled the suit and claimed no wrongdoing, but the point is that it's possible for products to slip through the cracks — even at big chains like GNC.
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So, it's important that supplement companies can "show their work," or tell you the source of all the ingredients, as well as how they're tested, says Craig Elbert, CEO and co-founder of Care/of, a company that sells personalized supplement packs. "As a consumer, you want to understand the brand, and are they transparent on what's going into the product, where it's coming from, and also are they transparent on their testing process," he says. Ideally, all companies would test supplements for dangerous substances like heavy metals or bacteria, but sometimes companies cut corners, he says. After all, testing can be expensive and take time, which can sideline new companies trying to break into the supplement industry.
So, where does that leave you when you're searching the aisles of a supplement store for something to try, or browsing the chic Instagram profile of some flashy new vitamin company? Ultimately, a lot of these decisions come down to being able to trust the company, Schneider says. "You can always ask companies to see third-party testing to go a little bit deeper," she says. "I think that's important as customers knowing that the company you work with really cares and takes that extra mile." But that can take extra time and effort that you may not have the energy for. Not to mention, the third-party testing results might be difficult to comprehend.
These days, the "wellness" trend encourages you to experiment on your body with ingredients or herbs that really have very little research to back them up, especially in large doses, Schneider says. But you have to be really careful. Depending on what supplements you're taking, you could either end up peeing out the excess vitamins, or in some cases they could lead to dangerous side effects.
Your best bet is to talk to your doctor or healthcare provider about whether or not you really need to be taking supplements in the first place. Most of us are able to get all the nutrients we need from foods, anyways. If they find you'd benefit from supplements, they may be able to recommend a specific brand to get. Also, be skeptical about any claims that seem to be too good to be true, a FDA representative suggests. If you see something that gives you pause (like a sketchy ingredient or lofty promise), the National Institutes of Health has a dietary supplement database that allows you to search for ingredients, products or manufacturers.
And most importantly, don't be swayed by a brand that just looks cool — even if it does suit your minimalist, millennial aesthetic, it doesn't mean it's right for you.
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