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Can a Test Tell You Which Vitamins to Pop With Just a Prick?

Around these parts I’m known as a bit of a vitamin junkie. While I’m not choking down a dozen vitamins a day like you get in those gas station packets, I do use myself as a bit of a wide-eyed guinea pig to see if supplements can improve my life. Over the years I’ve taken vitamin B (said to be great for energy and brain function), vitamin D (good for bone health; a deficiency is common), vitamin C (the miracle vitamin), milk thistle (said to improve liver function), and any number of additional supplements that have come in and out of my life. On one occasion many years ago I bought piracetam at a farmacia in Mexico because I read it would make you smarter. The jury remains out on that.

And so, when a new company called Baze pitched me that it was offering a bespoke vitamin service based on an at-home blood test, I was immediately onboard. All the vitamins and supplements I’ve taken to date were driven by hunches, hearsay, and breathless headlines from Parade magazine. Now someone was going to actually bring medical science into the mix. Sign me up.

Thrill Pill

Customized, mail-order vitamins have a history. Companies like Care/of, Persona, and Vous Vitamin all offer tailor-made vitamin packets, but all of these companies select supplements for you based on demographics and your answers to questionnaires, not actual physiological testing. Baze, however, sends you a blood test kit that you can use to draw a sample in your home. Then the company uses the results of that testing to determine where you’re vitamin-deficient. The hope is that hard science would be able to eliminate the guesswork about which pills to pop.

The Baze blood test is based on a new device called TAP, which aims to take the pain and mess out of blood draws. To use the TAP, you press it against your body and push the big green button on top. This drives a collection of microneedles into the skin, drawing a tiny amount of blood—a mere 100 microliters—into its innards. You seal up the TAP, then ship it back to Baze for analysis. The test costs $99, and that initial cost includes four weeks of personalized vitamins afterward. Follow-up tests also run $99 each (with no vitamins included).

I tried the TAP on my stomach as suggested in Baze’s documentation, but the needles never really latched on, leaving me with a somewhat bloody mess to clean up, but no blood in the unit. A Baze rep later delivered a replacement TAP in person and directed me to use it on my bicep instead, and this was far more successful. The blood was drawn and ready to go into the mail within the space of a few minutes. As promised, the draw was nearly painless, just the tiniest of pinches detectable when the button was pressed. (Baze has since changed its instructions to direct users to apply the device to their upper arm.)

Baze

About a week later, Baze emailed my results to me and sent my first month’s worth of vitamin packs. When I received my report, it took some time to figure out exactly what I was looking at. Up top was a “Baze Score” that rated my overall health. I got 71 out of 100, which put me in “normal” but not “optimal” range. Scrolling down I found my “Vitals” measurements, a set of nine figures that ranked everything from “Immunity” (76 points) to “Bone & Joint” (64 points). Scrolling down even further, the raw data from the blood test was finally revealed.

Dosage Docent

Baze pegged my levels for five vitamins—B12, selenium, zinc, copper, and E—as “optimal,” its highest rating. My vitamin D, magnesium, and omega-3 levels were all deemed normal, but with room for improvement. I eventually found that I could drill down further by clicking through on each of those vitamins to see the actual levels that had been measured. For example, my magnesium level was measured at 0.84 millimoles per liter, which seemed to me pretty close to the midpoint of the optimal range of 0.65 to 1.2 mmol/L. My vitamin D level was actually deemed on the high side, which is why D vitamins weren’t sent. (It’s worth noting that Baze does not test for iron or calcium levels, both of which are common deficiencies.)

Baze

With all of this data, Baze selected just two supplements to send me: 400 mg of magnesium citrate and 1,600 mg of omega-3, four (monstrously sized) pills total. These pills come numbered and packaged in a tear-off roll, designed to make it easy to take them with you—and less likely you’ll forget to take them altogether. Had I been paying for these vitamins (it's standard practice to waive the fees for a journalist testing a service), they’d have cost $20 each month, which is Baze’s minimum charge.

And so I took them, for a full three months. I also continued to take a B12 pill each day as part of longstanding doctor’s advice for an old neurological condition. There was a gap after the first month due to a communications snafu with Baze, but ultimately I did complete three full boxes of magnesium and omega-3 pills. After my time was up, I took the suggested follow-up blood test to see whether Baze’s vitamin advice had been on the mark. Again I found this tricky to do by myself, even on my arm, mainly due to my inability to easily tell whether the test was complete or not—though apparently I managed not to screw it up this time.

Baze

After about two weeks, my new results came back and showed, well, minor changes. My omega-3 levels rose a bit but were still below Baze’s “low” range, while my magnesium levels actually went down. In fact, all of my numbers save the omega-3 levels declined, yet Baze showed an overall improvement in my “Baze Score” from 71 to 74 points. My sad “Bone & Joint” score rose from 64 to a whopping 71, though I can’t say that either my bones or my joints feel any better now than before.

In fact, I honestly couldn’t say that three months of Baze’s vitamin regimen made me feel any different, and I didn’t notice any real change in energy levels or mood. My sleep was (and is) still erratic, and I still was experiencing the usual late-afternoon lethargy. That said, I will note that throughout my testing—which spanned the entire winter—I never got sick.

Tough to Swallow

But what about Baze’s lab results? The promise of doing multiple tests based on a few droplets of blood had me thinking of Theranos, though Baze founder Isam Haddad assured me that everything was on the up and up. The workings of the TAP test have been published in the peer-reviewed research journal Nature, he said, and it has FDA clearance as a type II medical device. Haddad explained that when Baze receives its samples, they are frozen and shipped to SwissAnalysis in Switzerland, where they undergo a mass spectrometry-based analysis. Haddad wrote in a follow-up email: “The methods were developed such that multiple biomarkers can be quantified within one assay, allowing us to reduce the required material to a few microliters. This makes MS-based technologies superior to conventional methods when it comes to convenient at-home sampling. Given the quantification of multiple biomarkers in one run, our MS-based approach yields significant advantages when it comes to costs per analysis. All methods are validated according to ICH Guidelines and are subject to regular proficiency testing.”

On the flip side, when I presented my results to a number of physicians, comments were less effusive. The TAP device was generally given a pass as technologically acceptable (though not as accurate as a standard blood draw), but when it came to interpreting my test results, medical opinions got confusing. Dr. William Howrilla said my vitamin D level was low (not high, as Baze suggested), while Dr. Kimberley Langdon, a medical advisor at Medzino, said my vitamin D was fine but that my vitamin E was low. In general, all the medical doctors I contacted thought my numbers seemed normal, though most suggested that Omega-3 supplements were a good idea.

When it came to Baze’s “Vitals” panel, the physicians sharpened their scalpels. “Vitamins and minerals cannot solely reflect any of the mentioned vitals,” wrote Dr. Tarek Hassanein, director of the Southern California Liver Centers. “Their presence in minimal to adequate amounts is important for the body’s enzymatic functions and biochemical reactions, but their levels do not assess any of these vital measurements you indicated.”

Langdon was less charitable, calling the Vitals panel “meaningless” and “a bunch of nonsense.” Dr. Paul Savage called them “purely a formula of someone’s imagination.”

Their communal skepticism certainly makes sense. I get what Baze is trying to do, but blood testing doesn’t really work that way. Vitamins simply don’t determine your overall health level, and assigning various ratings of health based on a few token blood markers seems disingenuous at best, a come-on to scare you into buying more vitamins at worst.

Supplemental Knowledge

Speaking of which, are Baze’s mail-order vitamins worth the cost? Pricing out the same magnesium citrate and Omega-3 vitamin pills at Amazon landed me at a daily cost of 71 cents, or $22.56 for 32 days’ worth of pills (the quantity in a Baze box). Considering Baze was charging only $20 for the same vitamins, the subscription was indeed a good value. This was the biggest surprise of all. The downside is that Baze doesn’t let you opt out of any supplements—or opt into any extras. You have to go with the company’s recommendations.

The bottom line: It’s complicated. If you’re concerned about vitamin deficiencies, your doctor can prescribe a blood test that will probably be more accurate and much more thorough—albeit more painful—and you’ll have someone who can interpret the results for you too. But going to the doctor is a hassle, and he’ll probably just tell you that you don’t need to be taking any vitamins at all, perhaps noting a FDA report from 2012 that says 115 people died in the US from vitamin usage over a five-year span. The killjoy.

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