Pill Popping: The Future of Supplements in a Wellness-Obsessed World

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If you’re like me, you can’t resist the promise of a handy health hack. From multivitamins and herbals to probiotics and protein powders, it seems like there’s a new product hitting the market daily promising to help us unlock a better version of ourselves. When time is of the essence and I’m not able to feed my body sufficiently with nutrients through food, I can simply toss back a concoction of supplementary pills and powders. It’s like a safety net helping me bounce back from lifestyle slip-ups or for when I need quick remedy to counter the guilt of an indulgent weekend.  

Today, a daily dose of supplements has become the norm, with 50% of U.S. adults – and 68% of those aged 65 and older – taking a multivitamin or mineral supplement on a regular basis, according to Gallup. But is this cocktail of supplements doing us any good? And how much of the allure comes down to photogenic packaging and clever marketing? With consumer skepticism about the efficacy of these products growing, the demand for credibility in the industry is evolving.

“Evangelism outpaces evidence every day,” says Ara Katz, co-founder and co-CEO of microbial sciences company Seed. “Wellness has exploded, propelling a category filled with misleading messaging, questionable products and a shift away from science. Misinformation spreads fast, which means misguided choices and misspent dollars that have the potential to compromise health.”

Unlike prescription drugs, which are heavily regulated by the FDA and whose claims and safety have to be proven before they can be sold, supplements are barely subjected to any government scrutiny. The way in which supplements are marketed to us is another sign of the times: we’re Instagram- and wellness-obsessed, prompting celebrities and wellness influencers to tout a product’s health benefits with little or no clarity about the clinical claims themselves. Take the Kardashian-Jenner clan, who since 2015 have promoted beauty supplements such as Hairfinity and Sugarbear Hair gummies, the latter recently amassing 2.7-million followers thanks in part to their support. Social media also makes the direct-to-consumer market all the more accessible: according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s Disrupting Brand Preference report, 50% of consumers now purchase from direct-to-consumer (DTC) brands.  

But we’re also doing our homework, challenging the authenticity and efficacy of these supplements brands and asking if it’s really all just about appearances or if these products are genuinely improving our health. It’s promising to know that most consumers still rely on information from traditional sources, such as doctors and pharmacists, to figure out which vitamins and supplements to consume. According to Euromonitor, 20% of global consumers rely on healthcare-related websites, 16% on fitness trainers, and 15% on social media. 

So what’s the future of the supplements industry? Will we all be hooked up to IV drips of whatever potion our favorite celebrity is endorsing? It’s doubtful — in fact, innovation in how and why we consume supplements is ushering in everything from 3D-printed pills to supplements optimized for your circadian rhythm. Here’s what’s next. 

Functional Supplements

Brands are looking to legitimize their products by shifting the narrative to focus on function. Whereas supplements’ purpose used to be to, well, supplement our food intake and boost our nutrient levels, the benefits were usually not something we could effectively track or feel. Brands are now incorporating ingredients proven to benefit mental function with instantly gratifying results. Take Kaleidoscope Labs — the brand has created a range of CBD vitamins designed to increase productivity for “type-A, career-driven people. The people who want to be more productive versions of themselves,” explains founder Ana Rosenstein. She adds on the brand’s website: “I wanted my CBD to be functional, not recreational.”

Science-led brands or products backed by neuroscientists are the way forward. Take newly-launched Your Heights, which was formulated by neuroscientist Dr Tara Swart to aid cognitive function or The Nue Co’s Anti-Stress Spray, which was the result of collaborating with Firmenich and legendary perfumer  Frank Voelkl. The brand utilized research from the Brain and Behavior Laboratory to understand the neurological reactions to certain scent groups and how certain scents make us feel.

Designing Beyond the Pill

Many supplements brands are starting to offer services beyond the pill, empowering consumers to track a product’s effectiveness. In addition to its subscription service, which allows customers to vary the potency of their sleep-aid supplements to avoid tolerance build-up, Remrise has its own app, equipping customers a sleep tracker and host of sleep and meditation tips.

A more advanced version of this comes from life-sciences company Elysium. Following the success of Basis, the supplement subscription service which claims to keep customers young, the brand launched Index, a bolt-on service for existing Basis customers who want to dig deeper into bioinformatics. With a supplement formula that has been designed to “support cellular health” and “change how you age,” the additional service gives the brand an opportunity to build a business that can hook customers for decades – perhaps even their remaining adult lifetimes. 23andMe, in contrast, can sell a consumer just one testing kit.

Educating Influencers 

Amid growing concerns about the legitimacy of claims in the health and wellness space, WellSpoken, the wellness industry’s first accreditation scheme, recently introduced a training program for wellness influencers. Founder Sarah Greenidge claims that, “while influencers’ words can be highly impressionable for brands that want to reach wider audiences, 74% of UK consumers identify social media as the least trustworthy source of health and wellness information.” Therefore brands need to create greater transparency by embracing authenticity in who they partner with.

Standing out as an educational leader, microbiome-based supplements brand Seed has launched Seed University in a bid to encourage influencer partners to learn about the products they promote. The interactive course, which lives on Instagram Stories, teaches influencers seeking to endorse their products about microbiomes, probiotics and the Seed brand. Only after completing the course will partners be able to earn commission from the sale of Seed products. “We hope to empower [influencers] with the tools to be creative with the content they share, while authentically representing the science and research that we stand for as a company,” says Katz. 

Going Local 

While sourcing local ingredients might typically be associated with food, supplements brands are adopting a local-first mindset. This is something Ritual and Biocol Labs pride themselves in. Ritual “mines, grows, harvests, synthesizes, ferments, extracts, purifies, tests and produces their own ingredients” (in some cases, Ritual even presents the clinical trial details of their formula). In addition, all of Ritual’s bottles are recycled material and their entire mailing experience is approximately 83% recycled materials.

Owned and run by a manufacturer that supplies medicine to doctors and pharmacists around Lisbon, Biocol Labs products are backed by extensive scientific studies. Christine Pausewang, founder of Biocol Labs, believes that the industry will evolve to bring suppliers in-house, highlighting that, “there is a big shift happening from manufacturers of ingredients who have started to do their own clinical studies and research with their ingredients.”

Cyclical Dosing 

Multiply Labs has developed a personalized pill that releases a predetermined dose of vitamins into the body throughout the day. The pills comprise of 3D-printed hollow capsules made from HPC-based filaments, and can be programmed to release different supplements at different times of the day.

Although there’s no biological understanding of real-time levels of nutrients in an individuals’ body, customers are able to take control of their own health by selecting the supplements, quantities and release times after answering a set of online questions about their current health.

In the beauty supplement category, brands like Lumity are inspired by our bodies’ circadian rhythms. Formulated to provide the right nutritional support at the right time, Lumity has created morning and night supplements to support the body with a combination of amino acids, vitamins and minerals. However, Steven Lockley, PhD Neuroscientist in the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders, believes personalized supplements will need to become more nuanced before they can truly be effective. He says: “At the moment everyone assumes that we all have the same circadian clock. In fact, we don’t. There’s about a five-hour range in circadian phases. You might take your pill at eight o’clock and I might take mine at ten, and that might have very different results.”  

The future of supplements looks highly customizable and sophisticated, but for now, we live in a one-size-fits-all world of pill-popping, meaning it lands on the consumer to do the research and resist being seduced by glossy, IG-perfect brands. Which makes us wonder: whether it’s science-backed, snake oil or straight-up placebo, if it makes us feel good, does it really matter

XX Jessica Smith of @of_twominds. Image by Alexis Conners