Eckerd’s Personalized Vitamins


Stephen Barrett, M.D.
July 4, 2001

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:

  • Do you smoke cigarettes?
  • Do you drink alcoholic beverages every day?
  • Are you dieting to lose weight?
  • Do you exercise more than 40 minutes 3 or more times per week?
  • Do you frequently feel anxious and physically stressed out?
  • Are you currently taking a prescription drug to reduce anxiety?
  • Do you wish you had more energy?
  • Please indicate your age group (18-34, 35-50, over 50).
  • Do you spend less than 15 minutes a day in direct sunlight?
  • Do you live or work in a greater metropolitan area?
  • Do you avoid eating meat and poultry?
  • Do you drink at least 3 glasses of milk or eat 3 servings of milk products every day?
  • Do you eat at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables each day?
  • Do you drink coffee or tea with your meals?
  • Do you eat at least 3 servings of whole grain breads, cereals, beans, or nuts each day?
  • Antioxidants can protect cells from damage of free radicals caused by every day stresses. Would you like increased antioxidant protection?
  • Do you take aspirin, Warfarin, Coumadin, or other blood-thinning drugs daily?
  • Please check any of the following conditions that may apply to you:
    • High Blood Pressure
    • High Cholesterol
    • Cardiovascular Disease
    • Frequent Stress Fractures or Weak Bones
    • Arthritis or Limited Joint Mobility
    • Loss of Memory

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:

  • The most significant difference is with calcium, for which Eckerd provides much more. However, the amount is not actually personalized because the number of servings of milk products does not affect the dosage, which might not be enough for women who avoid dairy products.
  • The amount of B12 in the formulas for people over 50 is certainly not optimal. Since the normal ability to absorb B12 begins to decrease after age 50, it is desirable to supplement with 25 mcg per day, the amount contained in Centrum Senior.
  • The iron dosage in Eckerd’s products would be appropriate for women who are not getting enough in their diet. However, this should be determined by hemoglobin testing. “Blind” supplementtion is inadvisable because excessive amounts of iron can cause iron-overload disease and other problems. Men don’t need as much iron as women, and the amount needed is less after age 50. (That’s why Centrum Senior has none.) Even stranger, the amount of iron in Eckerd’s “personalized” formula is the same whether or not the person eats meat.
  • The amount of vitamin C in the Eckerd product serves no purpose and might be harmful.
  • The amount of vitamin D is not influenced by whether or not the person is exposed to sunlight (which causes the body to make vitamin D).
  • The provision of saw palmetto to all men over 50 does not have scientific support. Although saw palmetto may help reduce the symptoms of benign prostatic enlargement, there is no reason for men without such symptoms to consider taking it. Saw palmetto can lower the level of prostate specific antigen (PSA) and thus interfere with the early detection of prostate cancer. Moreover, it has not been proven safe for long-term use.
  • Of course, people who eat sensibly have little or no use for most of the ingredients in multivitamin/multimineral products.

“Lifestyle Packs”

Eckerd’s “DailyHealth Nutrition System” includes six “Lifestyle Packs” said to be formulated according to the customer’s lifestyle:

  • Overall Health contains “a complete blend of vitamins and minerals especially for women and men under 50 and postmenopausal women.” It is identical to the “personalized vitamins” for women and men under 50 but costs $4 less.
  • Men’s Health contains “a selection of nutrients based on the needs of men over 50. It is identical to the “personalized vitamin” for men over 50 but costs $4 less. As noted above, it is not appropriate for all men over 50 to be taking saw palmetto.
  • Women’s Health contains “a complete blend of vitamins and minerals to help meet the needs of a woman experiencing menopause.” It is identical to the formula for women over 50 with menopausal symptoms but costs $4 less.
  • Body Performance is “a specially formulated assortment of vitamins and minerals for the demand you place on your body to achieve ultimate performance.” It is identical to to the “personalized vitamin” for women except that it has 100 mg of Panax/ginseng instead of pine bark extract. The idea that it or any other nutrient product will enable users to achieve “ultimate performance” is preposterous.
  • Heart Health contains “a complete selection of nutrients for overall heart health.” It is identical to to the “personalized vitamin” for women except that it has coenzyme Q10 instead of line bark extract. The idea that it is a “complete selection of nutrients for heart health” is preposterous.
  • Stressful Life contains “a selection of nutrients to help those experiencing the demands of a stressful lifestyle.” Its composition is identical to the “personalized vitamin” for women but costs $4 less. It contains no ingredient that has special value for coping with a stressful 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.