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Made Just for You: Customization in Vitamins and Dietary Supplements (VDS)

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As schedules become more demanding and health literacy grows more sophisticated, consumers are increasingly expecting consumer health delivery formats and positionings that specifically address their unique lifestyle needs. A few companies, however, are appropriating recent scientific research to take this concept one step further, offering nutrition advice and VDS formulations personalized for the individual.


In-store advertisement for the Vitamin Shoppe's Mytrition line

The new wave of VDS customization partially stems from the developing field of nutrigenomics, or nutrigenetics. The Food4Me Project describes nutrigenomics as combining the study of genetics and nutrition to identify how “tiny variations [in genetic make-up] determine both the effect nutrients have on our bodies and how we metabolise the food that we eat.” Initiated in April 2011, Food4Me is a four-year, European Commission-sponsored research grant aimed at assessing “the current knowledge of personalised nutrition [and] the application of individualised nutrition advice.” The Human Genome Project completed the first comprehensive sequencing of the human genome in June 2000, but original sequencing technologies were too expensive and time-consuming to be viable in the general marketplace. Conversely, new gene mapping techniques are both cheaper and faster, and shrewd entrepreneurs are exploiting these advances to reap the potential of personalised medicine trends.

Some firms limit their business model to providing tailored informational resources and guidance based on genetic data. 23andMe’s Personal Genome Service sends users a saliva sample kit in the mail, which they mail to a laboratory that returns results within 4-6 weeks. The company can then prepare up to 200 possible reports on topics ranging from ancestry and disease risk to diet response and food intolerances. While US-based, 23andMe also ships internationally to multiple different countries, though shipping costs for the US$99 kit jump from US$9.95 for domestic customers to US$74.95 for foreign ones.

The Personal Genome Service is likely a non-negligible purchase for the average consumer, but it is a relative bargain compared to UK firm Beyond Nutrition’s analogous offering. The latter company’s DNA Diet program provides an at-home cheek swab kit, as well as in-person consultations to review DNA test results related to such factors as ideal nutrient intakes, B-vitamin status, and other metabolic functions. The Basic Package, which includes one 30-minute consultation, is UK£395 (or approximately US$607), while the Ultimate Package, with three one-hour consultations and online/phone support, is UK£545 (US$837).

Giving people an individualized health or nutrition report is novel, but ultimately it amounts to a one-time sale. Extending customization to an actual supplement product allows companies to establish an ongoing differentiated exchange with consumers. At its most basic level, this customization may apply only to specific groups and may not incorporate individual genetic data. The Vitamin Shoppe’s Mytrition Personal Packs in the US, for example, are daily packs of multiple supplements available in Men’s, Women’s, Men’s Sport, Women’s Sport, Men’s 50+, and Women’s 50+. The composition of the six varieties, particularly between men and women, is very similar. The standard Men’s option, for instance, contains multivitamins, omega-3 fish oil, coenzyme Q10, green tea extract, vitamin D3, and maca extract (positioned as supporting sexual health), while the Women’s version has the exact same supplements, except with cranberry (to support urinary tract health) replacing the maca extract. Although Mytrition segments users more broadly, it still aims to streamline individuals’ supplement regimens. Rather than having to select, purchase, and organize multiple supplement products, consumers merely have to self-identify with one of the six groups, and all the legwork is completed for them.

Fifth-ranked global VDS brand Nature Made presents a similar, but even more personalised, level of convenience through its vitaminID.com site. Individuals can build their own daily packs by choosing specific ingredients or by taking a six-part online health survey that generates targeted recommendations. VDS company Vitaganic uses a comparable approach, but advances it even further by offering custom VDS formulations. Users can create a formula in a few ways: selecting ingredients from an extensive list of vitamins, minerals, botanicals, and nutraceuticals; entering 2-5 health concerns, such as “elderly memory support” or “colon support”, grouped under men, women, seniors, and boomers and receiving a site-blended formula; or taking an online health survey to produce a different formula suggestion. The company even lets consumers pick the colour and personalised text for their supplement bottle.

US-based geneME, however, represents the full scope of VDS customization. Using the slogan “dna customized nutrients”, the firm utilizes a cheek swab DNA test to identify individual variations in 12 genes associated with things like the body’s ability to use vitamin D. Using this information, geneME mixes several base nutrients with unique “boost” ingredients to create “a formula that is manufactured to specifically help offset, bypass, and beneficially support the effect of [genetic variations] on your body’s biochemical functions.”

One limitation of this cutting edge methodology is that geneME and related companies may be overselling it. Several recent studies suggest that nutrigenomics is still a nascent field and that more research and stronger evidence is needed to confidently make genetically-based dietary determinations. A study (Personalised nutrition: how far has nutrigenomics progressed?) in the May 2013 European Journal of Clinical Nutrition does not completely undermine the discipline, but does advise moderating expectations of its potential, noting that “genetic variants that influence nutrient metabolism have been identified, but individual variants have not been conclusively linked to the risk of multifactorial diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular disease.” Another study (Do we know enough? A scientific and ethical analysis of the basis for genetic-based personal nutrition) published online in Genes and Nutrition in March 2013 similarly asserts that “very few diet-gene-health relationships have been tested for causality in human intervention studies” and also cites the idea that, while likely important, “considering single genes (and gene variants) may be too simplistic.” Many proponents of nutrigenomics adopt a “can’t hurt, might help” argument, but also concede that the field is probably not yet advanced enough to directly influence public health policy.

Another caveat of customized VDS is purely practical. Compared to off-the-shelf supplements, the products can be quite costly. At the lower end of the spectrum, Mytrition Personal Packs currently retail for US$1.33 per pack. The table below approximates the cost of self-constructing the equivalent selection from individual supplements.

Price of individual supplements in Mytrition Men’s Personal Pack

Price of individual supplements in Mytriton men's personal pack

Source: Euromonitor International

Note: All products are Vitamin Shoppe private label brand, using lowest cost quantity available; all dosages are equivalent, except for multivitamins, which is approximated

Even more extreme, excluding shipping and handling and applicable tax, a personalized geneME VDS blend costs US$3.30 per serving, plus a US$175 fee for the “one-time Genetic Assessment.” This may be a premium too high for the casual VDS user to pay, despite the inherent appeal of a personalised product. For the more ardent devotee, on the other hand, this may be only the beginning.

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