I eat decently well, try to work out regularly, and limit myself (on most nights) to no more than two glasses of red wine. Why, then, have I found myself constantly being served Instagram ads for trendy vitamins seemingly out of nowhere?
It's not a coincidence, either. More so now than possibly ever, people are concerned with all things wellness – and part of that definition might include a prescriptive cocktail of vitamins and supplements from a chic, direct-to-consumer brand that you may have — you guessed it — stumbled upon via Instagram.
"I think it's very important for consumers to know that just because they can buy these supplements over-the-counter does not mean they are necessarily proven to be efficacious or safe," Erin D. Michos, MD, MHS, FACC, FAHA, Associate Professor of Medicine and Epidemiology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine tells Refinery29. "Dietary supplements are not intended to treat, diagnose, cure, or alleviate the effects of diseases, even though many adults take them for that purpose."
It's a sentiment that seems to be somewhat of a bête noire among medical professionals: "As physicians, we’re not going to stop you from taking vitamins or supplements, but we want to be aware of the ones you’re taking," NYC-based internist and gastroenterologist Niket Sonpal, MD, FACP adds. "We can’t put the whole picture together and guide you towards what’s going to help you be your healthiest and what could potentially have negative interactions."
With all that in mind, over the course of three months, I decided to test out three of the most buzzed-about brands out now — here's how that went.
Out of all three, Care/Of was the brand I'd probably heard of the most via podcast commercials and sponsored Instagram posts. I have to say, the brand did have my attention pretty quickly with its beautifully-designed website and bright, fun color scheme that conveyed what so many industry peers lacked: Personality.
After taking a comprehensive but engaging questionnaire that took into account my age, sex, interest in pre- and post-natal health, health goals, and lifestyle, I was recommended a regimen of ten daily pills (including vitamin C, calcium, iron, magnesium, and adaptogenic mushrooms) plus two different kinds of Quick Sticks, Care/Of's version of healthy Pixi Stix with benefits like energizing (thanks to 100mg caffeine, roughly the equivalent of a strong cup of coffee) and immunity support.
The enclosed insert broke down my customized regimen with photos of each one so it was easy to identify exactly what I was taking. (This will be relevant later.) The vitamins were dispensed in a vending machine-style box, with individually-portioned packets printed with "Hi Karina" on them. Yes, it was cute, and yes I felt compelled to post it on my IG story.
The Cost Factor: $65 for a 30-day supply. For the purposes of this story, I received a one-month box for free, but Care/Of offers customers the ability to opt in/out of certain pills (which are all priced individually), with options to subscribe to just a single pill a day. (Monthly orders under $20 will incur an $8 shipping fee.) Additionally, the brand offers exclusive coupons available on the Care/Of iPhone app.
The Verdict: 4 out of 5 weighted blankets. Care/Of's branding is great — no question about it — and definitely resonated with me as a twenty-something. However, ten pills (seven different ones, with three calciums and two magnesiums) ended up feeling like a lot for me to take every morning, and I couldn't help but think, "Do I need all of these?". Even with a smaller subscription, it's quite expensive; if I'd plan on resubscribing, I definitely whittle my recommendations down to probably four or five pills maximum. That said, I really appreciated how easy it was to navigate Care/Of’s website (and my own account portal), and the enclosed insert in my mailing had a clear, visual breakdown of each vitamin in my pack which made it easy for me to understand exactly what I was getting. (More on this later.)
If Care/Of is the Warby Parker-adjacent friendly vitamin brand, then by comparison, Persona seemed starkly clinical. Similarly to Care/Of, Persona curated my vitamins based on a detailed assessment, which I took during a weekend in the Catskills. In hindsight, I probably wouldn't have done that because it took a good 20 minutes of my time — not that 20 minutes is especially long, but in vacay years, let's just say I'd rather be sipping some Pinot Noir with a side of mountain #views.
Also similarly to Care/Of, Persona's packs came in a vending machine-style box with tear-away packets of vitamins. Not going to lie, these made traveling with my vitamins so easy, which I loved. Prior to this story, I took a daily multivitamin, vegan biotin, and Spironolactone (prescribed by my dermatologist) to keep my hormonal acne at bay. If I were going somewhere, I'd ration out the exact number I'd need for the number of days I'd be away and put them in an empty orange plastic pill jar.
But back to Persona: I received seven pills in my daily packs, in addition to an extremely detailed nutritional info card (visible in the photo above) breaking down everything that was in my pack. If it wasn't already obvious, I'm far from an expert when it comes to deciphering ingredients and numbers, and while the inverse — a lack of information — is infinitely worse, I did find this a little intimidating. It was quite literally, TMI.
The Cost Factor: $54.04 for a 30-day supply. This is also a lot of money! Again, I received a one-time complimentary box for the purposes of this story, and like Care/Of, pills are priced individually and can be added or removed from their packs at any time. Shipping is free for orders of $25 and up, but anything under — say, if someone only wants one or two pills — will run you an extra $10.
The Verdict: 3.5 out of 5 weighted blankets. It still feels a bit more expensive than I'd like in my opinion, and the website experience wasn't as enjoyable. However, I will say that what made Persona different from its competitors is the customer service. The brand prides itself on being science-driven and backed by its Medical Advisory Board, and you have access to a Live Chat function with a nutrition 24/7 via the website and mobile app. I used this function a. lot. to better understand what was recommended to me, and to get info on where they manufacture and source their ingredients (answer: globally) and to better understand how my pack fits into my lifestyle. However great this function is, it's not a substitute for consulting your own medical provider before popping supplements in the name of health.
Unlike the other two brands tested for this story, Ritual specializes in one thing, and one thing only: Multivitamins. There are two varieties to choose from: Essential for Women and Essential Prenatal, which has allegedly sold out a couple times already due to its popularity. A third formula, Essential for Women 50+, is set to launch on November 6.
In terms of the product, I really liked that it was easy to understand what I was getting; I signed up for the Essential for Women, and it arrived in a box with a cheery yellow interior. The capsules are vegan and feature ingredients sourced from around the world, and lastly, are made without any colorants or synthetic fillers. Plus, and this is stating the obvious, the clear capsules are very pretty and also kinda meta when you think of how important transparency is to the brand.
The Cost Factor: $30 a month for Ritual Essential for Women, $35 for Essential Prenatal, and $35 for the soon-to-be launched Essential for Women 50+. I love that it's one price, across the board, and you don't feel like you have to opt-in or miss out on certain recommendations, which does tend to foster this weird vitamin FOMO effect. Shipping is always free, and you can skip deliveries and cancel at any time.
The Verdict: 4.5 out of 5 weighted blankets. Based on my feedback from my own physician and medical professionals interviewed for this piece (not to mention what I feel most comfortable with), I decided that what works for me is minimal support via vitamins and supplements, and focusing on eating well. The capsules were by far the easiest to swallow out of all three brands (not that I have issues taking pills, but I know some people do have some difficulty there), and I appreciated the clarity and transparency in terms of what the Ritual vitamins were actually made of.
Increased awareness in wanting to live your best life isn't a bad thing, and it's great that brands exist to give us options if vitamins and supplements can help us: "There may be some exceptions for the need for supplements for certain individuals with specific nutrient deficiencies," Dr. Michos explains. "For example, vegans who do not eat animal products may be at risk for B12 deficiency and need supplementation."
As I mentioned in my Ritual review, my biggest takeaway from this testing period is that fostering healthy habits in my daily routine — eating well, exercising, not smoking — will do my body more good than a pill (or five) ever could. "If you have a balanced meal and eat a healthy diet, you don’t necessarily need them," Dr. Sonpal says. In other words, the best (and cheapest!) way to make sure you're getting all of your nutrients in one place is to ingest them the old fashioned way. "Individuals would be better served focusing their energy and money on eating a heart-healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables, getting regular physical activity, and not smoking," Dr. Michos adds. "These actions have much larger and demonstrated benefits for reducing risks of heart disease, stroke, and cancers."
As consumers, we should always think twice before hitting "add to cart" just because it's trending on social media. "Everybody wants a one pill solve," says Dr. Sonpal. "But you don’t need to be sick to see a doctor. Seeing a physician every year is a good thing, and by doing so, you can also review the things you’re trying or want to try."
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