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Eckerd's "Personalized" Vitamins

Stephen Barrett, M.D.

Eckerd Drugs, a subsidiary of J.C. Penney, operates more than 2,600 pharmacies and a large Web site from which it sells both prescription and nonprescription products. The company, which had $13 billion in retail sales in 2000, would like you to believe that its "Personalized Vitamins" program will "help you find the right assortment of vitamins, minerals, herbs, and specialty supplements based on your personal needs." Eckerd also markets a "DailyHealth Nutrition System" that includes six "Lifestyle Packs."

"Personalized Vitamins"

The "Personalized Vitamin" program, said to reflect the recommendations of Eckerd's pharmacists, uses separate questionnaires for men and women. The computer software was developed for Eckerd last year by IMRglobal Corp, of Clearwater, Florida, which states on its Web site that the program uses "complex algorithms" to "compute and recommend a combination of vitamins specific to the customer's input." IMRglobal also states that the customized vitamin program was previously available through in-store visits only.

The questions concern lifestyle, eating habits, age, and a few health conditions, with 18 questions for men and 19 for women. The answers are then used to "formulate your personal pack," which costs $19.95 per month plus shipping. According to Eckerd, "Each daily packet contains all the ingredients you need to achieve the perfect daily dose of vitamins and supplements" for adults 18 years and older. Both questionnaires ask:

In addition, men are asked about "prostate health concerns," whereas women are asked whether they are experiencing menopause; hot flashes; frequent yeast and sinus infections; and PMS (premenstrual syndrome).

What's Wrong with This Picture?

In July 2001, to learn how the program "reasons," I spent several hours completing the tests with various answers. No matter what answers I chose, my "perfect" product had identical amounts of nearly all of their ingredients. (For men, the only difference was that those over 50+ would get saw palmetto. For women, the only difference was that women over 50 who reported having menopausal symptoms would get lecithin, black cohosh, soy isoflavones, and more calcium.) The table below shows how the ingredient levels compared to the Daily Values (the FDA's standardized recommended amounts that appear on the labels of food and dietary supplement products), and the amounts in Centrum and Centrum Senior (the most popular multivitamins sold in drugstores).

 Ingredient

Daily Value (DV)

Eckerd

Centrum

Centrum Sr.

 Biotin

300 mcg

30 mcg

30 mcg

30 mcg
 Boron

--

150 mcg

150 mcg

150 mcg
 Calcium

1000 mg

662 mg/992 mg

162 mg

200 mg
 Chloride

3400 mg

72 mg

72 mg

72 mg
 Chromium

120 mcg

120 mcg

65 mg

150 mcg
 Copper

2 mg

2 mg

2 mg

2 mg
 Folate

400 mcg

400 mcg

400 mcg

400 mcg
 Iodine

150 mcg

150 mcg

150 mcg

150 mcg
 Iron

18 mg

18 mg

18 mg

--
 Lutein

--

500 mcg

--

250 mcg
 Magnesium

400 mcg

350 mcg

100 mcg

100 mcg
 Manganese

2 mg

2 mg

3.5 mg

2 mg
 Molybdenum

75 mcg

75 mcg

160 mcg

75
 Niacin

20 mg

20 mg

20 mg

20 mg
 Nickel

--

5 mcg

5 mcg

5 mcg
 Pantothenic acid

10 mg 

10 mg 

10 mg

10 mg
 Phosphorus

1000 mg

109 mg

109 mg

48 mg
 Pine bark extract

--

1 mg

--

--
 Potassium

3500 mg

80 mg

80 mg

80 mg
 Riboflavin (B2)

1.7 mg

1.7 mg

1.7 mg

1.7 mg
 Selenium

70 mcg

90 mcg

20 mcg

20 mcg
 Silicon

--

2 mg

2 mg

2 mg
 Thiamin (B1)

1.5 mg

1.5 mg

1.5 mg

1.5 mg
 Tin

--

10 mcg

10 mcg

--
 Vanadium

--

10 mcg

10 mcg

10 mcg
 Vitamin A

5000 IU

5000 IU

5000 IU

5000 IU
 Vitamin B6

2 mg

2 mg

2 mg

3 mg
 Vitamin B12

6 mcg

6 mcg

2 mcg

25 mcg
 Vitamin C

60 mg

310 mg

60 mg

60 mg
 Vitamin D

400 IU

400 IU

400 IU

400 IU
 Vitamin E 

30 IU

230 IU

30 IU

45 IU
 Vitamin K

80 mcg

25 mcg

25 mcg

10 mcg
 Zinc

15 mg

15 mg

15 mg

15 mg
 Saw palmetto
   (men only)

--

160 mg
(age 50+)

--

--
 Black cohosh
 Lecithin
 Soy isoflavones
   (women with    menopausal    symptoms)

--
--
--
9 mg
15 mg
15 mg

--
--
--

--
--
--

Thus, for 23 of the 37 possible ingredients, the amounts in Eckerd's "personalized" product are identical to those of ordinary Centrum. (The differences are highlighted in red.) But that's not all:

"Lifestyle Packs"

Eckerd's "DailyHealth Nutrition System" includes six "Lifestyle Packs" said to be formulated according to the customer's lifestyle:

Eckerd's Disclaimer

Eckerd Web site contains the following disclaimed on every page:

The information contained on this site is general in nature and is intended for use as an educational aid. It does not cover all possible uses, actions, precautions, side effects, or interactions of the products shown, nor is the information intended as medical advice or diagnosis for individual health problems or for making an evaluation as to the risks and benefits of using a particular product. You should consult your doctor or pharmacist about diagnosis and treatment of any health problems. Information and statements regarding dietary supplements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration ("FDA"), nor has the FDA approved the products to diagnose, cure or prevent disease.

Translation: Regardless of what we say to induce you to buy our products, we don't want you to rely on our advice to an extent that you should hold us responsible for whatever happens as a result of believing us and using our products.

The Bottom Line

Well-designed, computer-scored dietary questionnaires can determine whether a person's diet is unbalanced or nutrient-deficient. Eckerd's "Personalized Vitamins" questionnaire is too simplistic to have any practical value. Some questions have no relationship to nutrition needs, and many are too loosely worded to yield meaningful answers. Eckerd's "Lifestyle Packs" are equally misleading because their names do not reflect any special ability to meet special needs.

People who want or need supplements can get them elsewhere for much less money. In fact, they can buy Eckerd's own Central-Vite multivitamins, which are identical to their Centrum counterparts and cost only $1.50 per month. Perhaps consumers have figured this out for themselves. Eckerd has announced that its "Personalized Vitamins" and "Lifestyle Packs" will be discontinued on July 12th.

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This article was posted on July 4, 2001.