Meet the modern vitamin and supplement brands on a mission to hack our health
Today's pill merchants are honing in on more specific aches and pains to serve consumers and stand out in the market.
A new wave of supplement brands have hit the market in recent years – and they look nothing like the boring brown jars of vitamins normally stocked at health food stores.
It's no surprise that today's health-conscious consumers are turning to daily vitamins and supplements. Last year, with health more top-of-mind than ever, the market saw a significant spike and is set to reach $36.6 billion in the U.S. in 2021.
Ritual, largely credited for kicking of the new wave of modern vitamin and supplements brands in 2016, captured our attention on Instagram for its clear-capsuled pills. The company has now raised a total of $40.5 million and expanded its product range to include protein powders and multivitamins targeting women age 50 and up.
The brand’s success in selling supplement subscriptions online – and decking out its website with plenty of links to scientific studies that support its claims – has inspired plenty to follow suit, including Care/of, which portions its supplements into daily sachets, and Feel, a U.K. brand which has just raised £4.5 million ($6.4 million) in funding.
Rather than simply focusing on replenishing Vitamin D levels, or providing an all-round multivitamin, as competition in the supplements market grows, today’s modern pill merchants are honing in on the more specific aches, pains and worries people might be experiencing.
There are now supplements that purport to provide better pain relief – Hilma’s "tension relief" herbal blend promises to fix headaches, specifically – while others such as Elo Health and Vitl provide personalized concoctions based on a customer’s blood results. HVMN sells products that aim to kickstart ketosis, the body’s fat-burning process.
Supplements to support cognitive and cellular function have also emerged. Heights (which recently raised $2 million in funding) and Simris are focusing on brain health by offering their customers omega fatty acids, the brain's building blocks. Elysium Health, meanwhile, has perhaps the most out there promise of all the modern supplement startups: to add extra years to our lives with its anti-aging pills.
These claims are compelling – but they are also really tricky to prove to skeptical consumers. Even the most diligent Elysium customer won’t actually be able to find out if they have outlived the parallel universe version of themselves who did not take the supplement.
So how do brands convince customers that they’re not just selling snake oil?
Eric and Stephanie Venn-Watson, the founders of Fatty15, say that brands making bold claims need to be able to back their statements up – and that’s why you see so many tabs labelled "science" at the top of these brands’ websites.
“People are eager to find ways to live healthier, but we’re also getting smarter. We don’t just want to be told ‘take this, trust us,’” Stephanie Venn-Waston explains. “It’s [got to be] more like ‘hey, read our paper.’ We’re doing a lot proactively around education so [customers] can read how Fatty15 works.”
Venn-Watson says it was her work as a dolphin health researcher for the U.S. Navy that led her to launch Fatty15 with her husband. “The Navy takes such good care of their dolphins that they live 50% longer than dolphins in the wild. So they accumulated a population of geriatric dolphins, and as they were getting older they were developing age-associated diseases like chronic inflammation and even Alzheimers,” she explains. The healthier older dolphins tended to have higher levels of "C15 pentadecanoic acid," the active ingredient in Fatty15’s new supplement, which Venn-Watson has published papers about in the journal, Nature.
In 2019, Elysium Health launched an at-home test that it said could measure "biological age," which can be used as an indicator of general health levels – and, in theory, to show if Elysium’s supplements are working, by comparing results over time.
The device costs $499 and requires that customers take a leap of faith – its results are not backed by long-term research. For anyone considering taking the plunge, perhaps the brand’s "cellular health" supplements at $40 a bottle – whether they work or not – would be a better deal.
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