Ritual sells clear vitamin capsules in clear glass bottles. They arrive at your door in a sunny, white and yellow box sporting icons for the wellness perks you expect of vitamins (improves mood, protects skin) and the slogan, “The future of vitamins is clear.”
The packaging is a deliberate metaphor for company founder Katerina Schneider’s mission. Schneider, a former partner at angel fund AF Square, got the idea for Ritual more than a year ago after a fruitless search for prenatal vitamins that didn’t contain things like food coloring. She imagined a vitamin that offered only essential nutrients and detailed information about what they do and where they come from. “We expect that kind of transparency from a lot of other products we ingest or put on our bodies, but it’s kind of a maze in the vitamin world,” she says.
Ritual’s first product, the Essential for Women daily vitamin, contains nine ingredients: iron, magnesium, omega-3, folate, boron, and vitamins K2, D3, B12, and E. That’s fewer than leading brands; the Vitamin Shoppe’s daily multivitamin for women contains 41, and One a Day for Women has 55—if I’m counting correctly, which is hard to do with these labels. Even SmartyPants, a vitamin that boasts no fillers and nothing artificial lists more than 20 ingredients. With Ritual, it’s easy enough to count to nine, but you also see the individual ingredients floating in tiny beads within each capsule—a handy mascot for the company’s goal.
Ritual employs three doctors, and at least three more serve as advisors. They helped Schneider choose the nine nutrients Ritual deems most essential to the average female diet. Research and clinical trials informed decisions on dosages, which don’t dangerously exceed the recommended daily allowance. In keeping with its ethos of transparency, Ritual shares much of this information online. Want to know why Essential for Woman contains, say, boron? Because it makes Vitamin D receptors more efficient, and supports bone, joint, and hormone health. Want to know where it’s from? It’s from Futureceuticals, in Illinois. Want to nerd out even more? Ritual has links to six studies on the effects of boron.
The approach is admirable but, also, inevitably fraught. Some quarters of the medical community are increasingly skeptical of multivitamins because of a dearth of evidence that they offer any benefit, and because there is little regulation or oversight. “In theory, vitamins have to be held to a labeling standard. But the FDA doesn’t have the manpower to really regulate that,” says Paul Offit, a pediatrician and author of Do You Believe in Magic? Vitamins, Supplements, and All Things Natural: A Look Behind the Curtain. “For all intents and purposes, it’s a system that goes on trust,” Offit says.
One way to earn trust, Offit says, is to obtain United States Pharmacopeia verification that what’s on the label is actually in the pill. Ritual lacks this mark. It did have Covance, a third-party testing facility, confirm that the label accurately represents the contents of the bottle, and that capsules do not contain traces of heavy metals, allergens, and pathogens.
Still, outfits like Pharmacopeia and Covance cannot vouch for health claims. And although vitamin- and supplement-makers can’t tout specific benefits—“Guaranteed to ease arthritis pain!,” for example—they can offer vague claims about boosting your energy, balancing your mood, and the like. These tantalizing promises work: Americans spend billions annually on unregulated vitamins and dietary supplements. Offit chalks that up to marketing, specifically the kind that advertise supplements as replacements for fruits and vegetables. Often that happens right on the label, in the form of pictures of real foods.
To be sure, Ritual makes bold, broad claims too. “We need all these nine ingredients,” says Kathleen M. Fairfield, an internal medicine physician at Maine Medical Center. “But there’s very little science to say a person should be taking a multivitamin of this composition. I don’t think there’s much science at all that suggests we’re not getting enough Vitamin K, for instance.” In this light, Ritual’s product probably isn’t harmful—but it isn’t demonstrably essential, either.
Its offerings also comes wrapped in some heavy-handed branding. This is where Schneider is trying something new. She deliberately chose to publish photos of nutrients in powder or liquid form. “I think there’s this common misconception that vitamins are all coming from plants,” Schneider says. “There’s actually a complicated process that goes into synthesizing vitamins, to get them into the forms the body needs. This is the way they look coming out of a lab.” Along with that, Ritual’s website also tells you which real foods contain the nutrients in the Essential for Women vitamin. This doesn’t change the fact that vitamins have a legitimate credibility problem, but it does rethink how information about them can be presented.
Plus, some people really do need vitamins. Offit identifies newborns, vegans, and women of childbearing age as candidates for supplements. Fairfield points to people whose beliefs about food restrict their diets, which can lead to vitamin deficiencies. As for everyone else, they might aspire to a vitamin-rich diet, but it’s a rare reality. Time, income, and lack of knowledge get in the way. That last factor—education—acts as an especially potent barrier. If your doctor tells you to take magnesium, or calcium, do you always know how much, or what kind?
Packaging can improve that—it’s prime real estate for vitamin companies to pull back the curtain a bit, to spare consumers from digging through dubious online forums in search of information. You might not need to take a multivitamin, but if you choose to, you deserve to know what’s in it, and what lab it came from.