How the vitamin industry convinced adults to eat gummies for health


  • America’s supplement industry is slated to pass $36 billion this year in sales.
  • One of the break-out categories is gummy vitamins, which has become the No. 1 way those under 35 buy their supplements.
  • But some consumer advocates and doctors worry that those supplements don’t have as many benefits as people think.
  • “I don’t think it’s necessarily moving the health of our country forward, but it’s good marketing,” one professor at Harvard Medical School and longtime doctor told Business Insider. 
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Robert Shmerling’s patients eat too much candy. They think it’s good for them.

That candy — colorful, chewy, shaped like orange slices and teddy bears  — is the gummy vitamin. Shmerling, who’s been a rheumatologist in the Boston area for three decades and is a professor at Harvard Medical School, said some of his patients were taking a dozen supplements, gummy or otherwise, every day.

“Half of them, they’re not even sure what it’s for,” he said.

It’s not the sugar in each vitamin that concerns him, although with an average of 3 grams a serving, it adds up. Rather, Shmerling thinks his patients should simply eat better. Instead of, say, buying a $55 pack of gummies made with blue algae, wheatgrass, barley, and other veggies, they should probably just eat their veggies.

It’s an amusing juxtaposition — adults who are health-conscious enough to care about their vitamin and mineral intake but don’t mind starting their day off with candy. 

It’s also a global market worth billions, with no ceiling in sight. 

Chewable vitamins are now the No. 1 way adults in America age 35 and younger consume supplements, the market-research group Mintel reported. “The marketing emphasizes you, the consumer, are missing something if you’re not taking this product,” said Chuck Bell, who works for the advocacy wing of Consumer Reports. “But not too many people have scurvy or rickets and have a need to take this thing.”

Getting your vitamins and minerals through the sweet and chewy treats became a widely accessible option for adults in the early 2010s. Experts said the category lived in the children’s aisle until marketers wondered if their parents might want to try them too.

“This promise of fun has become increasingly common in Big Food,” said Charlene Elliot, a communications professor at the University of Calgary and the author of “Fun Food: Children’s Food Marketing and the Politics of Consumption.”

When companies speak to millennials and increasingly Gen Zers, infantilization is typical. Brands have turned a modest drinking vessel into a wine sippy cup. The popular Hydroflasks and Camelbaks allow adults to drink water through bite valves, baby bottles for grown-ups. Instructions to build one furniture company’s wares sassily concludes: “YOU’RE ALL DONE! Time for Netflix!” 

There are a barrage of startups that promise you’ll never need to “adult” again if you just outsource those pesky chores to contract workers. For a small chunk of your allowance, Big Tech has ensured you never have to do your laundry, cook, buy groceries, or even hang a frame.

And now Big Gummy says you don’t have to eat your vegetables. You can eat candy instead.

‘There’s not a lot to look forward to, but at least I get to eat gummies’

The world of chewable supplements is more shadowy than the cutesy colorful candy would suggest.

The companies who brought the gummy vitamin from laboratories into the aisles of Walmart and Target and Kim Kardashian’s Instagram were reluctant to tell Business Insider how they came up with the gummy format, declining or ignoring inquiries to know more. Business Insider instead turned to former employees, doctors, market experts, and startups to fill in the blanks.

In 2018, Americans spent more than $32 billion on nutritional supplements, nearly $12 billion of which went to vitamins and minerals, according to IBISWorld. The Nutrition Business Journal said 12% of that $12 billion spend was on gummy vitamins. That’s double the sales gummy vitamins saw just four years before, according to the Nutrition Business Journal.

Church and Dwight, the maker of several top gummy-vitamin brands, said its chewable-supplement business was up 40% in May, June, and July of this year. “Our gummy vitamins have been on fire,” CEO Matt Farrell told investors in a July earnings call.

The supplement industry’s growth may have accelerated amid the coronavirus crisis, but customers were flocking to supplements before 2020, and increasingly opting for the chewable variety.

“It’s a natural thing happening in the market,” Andrew Stablein, a research analyst at Euromonitor, said. “Consumers, now more than ever, are concerned by their health. It’s easy to learn what your ailments are on the internet, and it’s changed immensely how people interact with their health.”

And then there’s the biggest selling point for gummy vitamins: They’re fun. They spark joy in the same way that Lunchables, Fruit by the Foot, and other childhood-snack staples did.

Gummy Vitamins 3

Sales of Flintstones vitamins, available in gummy and chewable form, will hit $100 million this year, according to a Bayer spokesperson.

Hollis Johnson/Business Insider


For Ingrid Sorensen, a 23-year-old who works in cannabis marketing, gummy vitamins were the only fruit snack her yoga-loving mom allowed in the house growing up. Now living on her own, she said she takes a chewable vitamin every morning, one stuffed with vitamin B12 that has “that artificial berry flavor.”

Sorensen said she prefers the gummy version of her vitamin B12 supplement, even though the capsule form makes her feel more energized. “[The capsule] leaves this weird taste in your mouth,” she said. “The gummies are way more fun.”

That fun is dwindling amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has kept most of the US at home since mid-March. Libby Mindarino, a 26-year-old living in Atlanta, made sure to stock up on giant gummy-vitamin bottles when she prepared for quarantine.

“There’s not a lot to look forward to, but at least I get to eat gummies,” Mindarino said.

For Peter Waitzman, a 42-year-old Chicagoan, the gummies have become an afternoon treat. “I’m getting a cup of coffee and I’m thinking, ‘Eh, I should grab a vitamin,” he said.

The gummy candies remind him of the Flintstones vitamins of his youth. Introduced in 1969, they’re now produced by German pharmaceutical giant Bayer. (A representative said Flintstones supplements will drive more than $100 million in revenue this year.)

The weird science behind stuffing a gelatinous morsel full of vitamins

Cereals and other food products fortified with nutrients have existed for years. Companies have sold sweet, chewable tablets like Flintstones vitamins for decades. One New York Times report, from 1986, raised the alarm on a “calcium ‘fad,'” in which pharma-advertisers urged postmenopausal women to buy calcium supplements in formats reminiscent of “a roll of mints.” Perrigo, an Ireland-based manufacturer, announced in 1993 the first chewable adult multivitamin, with a cherry taste.

But squeezing several daily servings of vitamin C, biotin, zinc, or whatever nutrient you desire into gummy form is no easy feat. Moreover, gummy candies weren’t always a normal treat in the US.

According to John Troup, the vice president of scientific affairs and dietary supplements at the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, the gummy-vitamin craze has its roots in the 1980s. Haribo, the German candy company, began exporting the charming gummy bear to American stores.

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Gummy vitamins have been around since the late 1990s.

Hollis Johnson/Business Insider


Troup said manufacturers started to experiment with new formats of vitamins in the ’90s. He said that Hero Nutritionals, founded in 1995, created the first gummy vitamin for the American market.

Jennifer Hodges, the CEO of Hero, confirmed that her company introduced America’s first gummy vitamin. 

“I used to always take my nieces to the Sweet Factory and we all loved the gummy bears,” Hodges wrote. “I thought how amazing it would be to put vitamins into an all-natural gummy bear.” 

Two years later, the gummy vitamin was born. Myriad other health-food companies, particularly ones angled toward children, started marketing a similar product.

But consumers didn’t really care for these early gummies, Troup said. The boiled pig skins were the problem.

Traditional Haribo gummy bears use animal-derived gelatin to deliver a chewy texture. Gelatin is produced by boiling the parts of an animal — often roasted pig skin or bones — and distilling the unctuous, collagen-rich broth. Gummy bears, Peeps, marshmallows, and many other confections owe their texture to gelatin.

Gelatin

Gelatin is fed through a tube during the production of pharmaceuticals in a German factory.

Bernd Settnik/picture alliance via Getty Images


But gelatin doesn’t play well with vitamins and minerals. It takes up far too much space, Troup said. So the first gummies could house only one vitamin, and only specific kinds at that.

Vitamin C was the first supplement to be made into gummy form. “Vitamin C was the first obvious choice — it’s good for kids, everybody wants more vitamin C, and it can make great tasting orange gummies or even cherry gummies,” Troup said. 

Farewell, pig skins. Hello, cash.

By 2009, Troup said manufacturers started using fruit pectin as the vitamin’s chewy agent over gelatin. Pectin takes up less space than gelatin, allowing manufacturers to stuff more supplements in each candy. It also appealed to vegetarian and vegan consumers.

“When they shifted [to pectin] and learned how to do it well, that’s when it started taking off,” Troup said.

But if scientists were working hard, marketers were working harder. 

Supplements were attracting more Americans, who were weighing a fixation on health with the cost of going to the doctor. Check-ups had become so expensive that some viewed vitamins as preventive medicine. From 1988 to 1994, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 42% of Americans took vitamins. By the mid-2000s, that number was 53%.

Americans who took vitamins also started taking more of them. A study of 120,000 nurses found that nearly 47% took two or more supplements in 1986. By 2006, over 70% did.

While the nutrition industry, comprising vitamins, sports performance products and alternative medicine, is now worth billions, marketers needed to figure out how to convince Americans that eating vitamin-tinged candy was a positive move for their health.

“There was hesitancy on the part of adults,” a former manufacturing supervisor at Church and Dwight, the multinational conglomerate that makes Vitafusion and Lil’ Critters gummies, told Business Insider. 

“You’re taking vitamins to lead a healthy lifestyle, but here you are taking a product that’s essentially candy? That’s a little bit of a challenge.”

So they focused on the fun.

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Sales of gummy vitamins doubled from 2014 to 2018, according to the Nutrition Business Journal.

Hollis Johnson/Business Insider


A former marketing executive at Perrigo, the Irish pharmaceutical manufacturer that experimented with new drug formats, walked us through it. (He asked not to be identified.)

There was the Jolly Rancher vitamin-C candy, but it didn’t sell enough to make up for the other costs. “It was just too expensive — we couldn’t pay the royalties,” he said. Then there were the vitamins for pets, which came in shapes like a mailman and milkman.

(Perrigo was key in pushing gummy vitamins to market, but it has since exited the game. A Perrigo representative said it no longer manufactured gummy vitamins, and it did not respond to further inquiries.)

A slew of smaller companies, like Olly, SmartyPants, and Goli now occupy the market space. But Church and Dwight, which also makes Trojan condoms and Arm & Hammer baking soda, has perhaps cleaned up best.

The conglomerate put its manufacturing and marketing muscle behind Vitafusion and Lil’ Critters, expanding from six to more than 50 products since it acquired the two brands in 2012.

Years later, business is still booming for Church and Dwight. Over the summer of 2020, Church and Dwight saw double-digit growth for its Vitafusion and Lil’ Critters brands, the same sort of growth seen for pandemic staples like cleaners and baking soda. (The company did not respond to requests for comment.)

“Everyone was kind of laughing at them,” the former Perrigo marketing executive said of Church and Dwight. “Now they’re laughing all the way to the bank.”

A favorite of the Patagonia crowd and the Kardashians

Gummy vitamins fared well in the 2000s for kids, and then the 2010s for adults. Part of the growth likely stemmed from what food-marketing researchers such as the University of Calgary’s Elliot call the “game-ification” of food.

Those born after 1980 grew up with the idea that food was supposed to entertain, not just nourish or taste good, she said. 

Millennials and Gen Zers also use food to communicate values. Elliot, who has interviewed dozens of parents in her research on children’s eating habits, said that parents sent their children to school with Lunchables not only because they were convenient (despite the punishing amounts of sodium and saturated fat) but also because they helped their kids fit in.

“Lunchables were cool, and all the cool kids had Lunchables,” she said.

Adults like gummy vitamins because they taste good and don’t require a glass of water to choke them down. But just as important, all the cool kids are taking them. 

Courtney Nichols Gould, the CEO of leading gummy-vitamin company SmartyPants Vitamins, described her core market as the “Patagonia” crowd — that is, health-conscious parents and adults with a preference for organics.

Then, in 2016, SugarBear Hair sprung up with hearty endorsements from the queens of Instagram: Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner.

It made the gummy vitamin trend turn into a full-on craze. While the overall supplement industry has grown by about 3.6% every year over the past five years, according to IBISWorld, Stablein estimated that gummy vitamins have increased by as much 15% each year. The overall supplement industry will to surpass $36 billion this year, IBISWorld estimated.

“When influencers get behind some products, someone that you look up to, like James Charles or Kylie Jenner, a lot of these people are inclined to buy them,” Stablein said.

SugarBear Hair is perhaps the best-known gummy vitamin among the Instagram crowd, but chewable vitamins are now available at a variety of fashionable storefronts. Sephora has a whole category of beauty supplements. Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop brand doesn’t have gummy vitamins, but it does sell chews in flavors like café au lait and blackberry for about a buck each.

 

“It was a rather mundane category,” Stablein said. Not anymore.

Gummies might be better for your inner child than future self

Americans have increasingly looked to vitamins as a kind of insurance against disease, perhaps because our medical insurance has proved pitiful. Gobbling vitamin D, calcium, or fish oil pills is seen as an amulet against disease, even as study after study suggests that supplements don’t do more than placebos for improving health.

Robert Shmerling said there are some groups, such as pregnant people, who should take a targeted vitamin. Those eating balanced diets generally do not need vitamins, though it may be tempting to take a pill with seven times your daily recommended requirement for vitamin C.

“There’s no evidence that the average healthy adult needs to take supplements,” said Shmerling, who’s also a senior faculty editor at Harvard Health Publishing.

The CDC found in its most-recent study on nutrition that less than 10% of Americans are deficient in certain vitamins. And, while it’s low-income Americans who have the greatest systemic barriers to a healthy diet, regular supplement use is tied to a higher income, Gallup found.

Other research has indicated that gummy supplements are even more suspect than the traditional tablet for delivering vitamins and minerals. A 2016 story by BuzzFeed News said that most of the nutrients listed on a SugarBear Hair bottle were inaccurate by 20% or more.

Nearly half of all gummy vitamins have significantly more or significantly fewer nutrients than the label says they do, a 2017 Consumer Lab study found. Some manufacturers even spray the surface of their gummies with vitamins if the gelatin mixture itself doesn’t take in the supplement. 

“That’s problematic,” said Chuck Bell of Consumer Reports, because it means that customers aren’t getting the prescribed amount of a vitamin they believe they’re ingesting.

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Hollis Johnson/Business Insider


A former Church & Dwight production facility manager said that gummies have never been a perfect science.

“The whole gummy-vitamin industry was the Wild West,” the manager told Business Insider. “A lot of people were doing things in a lot of different ways.” 

Meanwhile, gummies can’t deliver key nutrients like iron or calcium, said a representative of Bayer, who produces the Flintstones vitamins. That’s why the classic chewable Flintstones vitamins are a “key part” of the manufacturer’s profile, even though gummies are growing. 

Those stories haven’t deterred some, like Waitzman, the Chicagoan who eats a gummy with his coffee. “For me, I’m not that regimented about it,” he said. “I don’t feel like I need it. It’s more like, ‘Why not take them and why not make it as easy and fun as possible?'”

Back in Boston, Robert Shmerling knows his patients feel more empowered when they buy a bottle of gummy vitamins, because it can fill what they believe to be gaps in their diets. 

“It’s brilliant marketing,” Shmerling said. “I don’t think it’s necessarily moving the health of our country forward, but it’s good marketing.” 

But the doctor had something to admit: He takes a gummy vitamin every day. 

“I’m not proud of it, I’m not convinced it’s doing anything for me,” he said. “I mainly do it because it’s like a little piece of candy.” His wife bought the vitamin C and calcium gummies for them, he added. 

“Oh god,” he said. “I’m so embarrassed.”

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