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Personalized Nonsense

DNA_human_ancestry_AfricaOn an almost weekly basis I receive e-mails from companies offering “personalized multivitamin kits.”

The pitch goes something like this: fork over a three-digit figure (I’ve seen ranges from $150 – $400) to receive a special cotton swab in the mail.  You are to scrape the inside of your cheek with this swab and return it via postal mail (in a special container, of course)

A few weeks (and more dollars) later, your custom-made multivitamin mix tailored to your genetic profile arrives.

Wow — so futuristic!  And, come on, who doesn’t love a personalized service?

Too bad it’s not quite as scientifically edgy as it sounds.

Although the field of nutrigenomics (nutrition as it pertains to our individual genetic code) is in the beginning stages (think building the first floor of a 300-story building) and holds plenty of promise, the science is not yet at the point where it can make specific nutrient recommendations based on a genome.

Many of these companies claim that nutrition guidelines are useless since they are meant to apply to 98 percent of the population.

Remember, though, that recommended intake figures for vitamins and minerals are meant precisely as that — guidelines.

It is expected that certain populations, or people with certain conditions, will alter their intake somewhat from them.  For example:

  • Menstruating women require more iron than non-menstruating women
  • Smokers have higher vitamin C requirements than non-smokers
  • Teenagers require higher calcium intakes than adults over the age of 65
  • Women who breastfeed need more vitamin B6 than a man in his thirties

Remember, too, that in the case of most vitamins and minerals, most adults are already getting plenty — partially because most adults are getting many more calories than they need.

There are a handful of vitamins and minerals that are under-consumed in the United States (mainly iron, calcium, and potassium), but most people’s intake of the B vitamins and zinc, for instance, are well-above the recommendations.

Even if we could tell someone that they need, say, 20 extra milligrams of vitamin C a day, the goal would be to get that nutrient from food (ie: eat an extra half orange), rather than costly supplements.

A few years back, the Goverment Accountability Office released a wonderful report on the accuracy and efficacy of these “at home” genetic tests.  I highly recommend leafing through it.

Click here for a brief summary of the paper, and here to read highlights from it.

In the meantime, don’t let fancy shmancy futuristic advertising pry open your wallet.

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