How the $36 billion vitamin industry tricked a generation of adults into believing sugary gummies were the ticket to good health

gummy vitamins

In 2019, the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN) released its twentieth annual Consumer Survey on Dietary Supplements. The survey reported that 77 percent of Americans use dietary supplements [1]. This sounds great for the vitamin industry.

This is a substantial increase from the 1980s, when over forty percent of US adults reported using supplements. By 2006, that number climbed to more than fifty percent [2].

That increase translates into big money. In 2019, the US supplement industry raked in 32 billion dollars [3]. In 2020, experts are forecasting that revenue will grow to over 36 billion dollars [4].

The vitamin industry makes up a significant portion of that money. One area that has seen substantial growth over the last decade has been the gummy vitamin industry. More and more US adults are choosing to swap their capsules for chewable, vitamin-infused treats. This trend, however, has many doctors concerned.

Many supplements, particularly those of the gummy variety, may not be as good for you as the vitamin industry wants you to believe. While there is a time and a place for these products, quality does matter, and in some cases they could be doing more harm than good.

Gummies: The Vitamin Industry’s Ticket to Success?

Robert Shmerling has been a rheumatologist in Boston for thirty years and is a professor at Harvard University. He says some of his patients are taking dozens of supplements every day. Half of them, he says, they don’t even know what they’re for.

While not all of the supplements his patients are taking are gummies, the popularity of these fun, sugary “treats” is growing. According to the market research group Mintel, chewable vitamins are now the number one way adults under the age of 35 are consuming supplements. 

This change only started happening in the early 2010s. Before then, vitamin-infused candies could only be found in the children’s aisle. That was until marketers decided that adults might want in on the fun too.

“This promise of fun has become increasingly common in Big Food,” said Charlene Elliot. She is a communications professor at the University of Calgary and the author of “Fun Food: Children’s Food Marketing and the Politics of Consumption.” [5]

Rebranding Candy

You can see the infantilization trend appearing in products across several industries. Wine sippy cups and camelback with bite-through valves are just a couple of examples. There are multiple new companies marketing towards millennials and Gen Zers with promises that they’ll never have to “adult” again. All you have to do is outsource mundane chores like laundry and grocery shopping to contract workers.

Gummy vitamins come with the promise that you no longer have to eat vegetables. Instead, you can get all the nutrients you need in the form of sweet candy.

What makes them so enticing is that they’re fun. They make you happy in the same way that your favorite candy did when you were a child. During a global pandemic when many of people’s favorite activities have been cancelled, many of us are looking for fun anywhere we can get it.

“There’s not a lot to look forward to, but at least I get to eat gummies,” said Libby Mindarino, a 26-year-old living in Atlanta [5].

For many people, these gummy vitamins remind them of those classic Flintstones vitamins of their youth. It’s like a comfort- a flashback to a simpler time.

Inaccuracies in the Vitamin Industry

The vitamin industry started taking off in the 1980s. Americans were becoming increasingly concerned with their health, but regular checkups at the doctor had become prohibitively expensive for many people.

Vitamins, then, were like this easy form of preventative medicine. Just pop a few every morning and you won’t get sick. It was a little more difficult, however, for marketers to convince these health-conscious adults that candy was good for them. 

This is the reason the marketing of these products focuses less on the health benefits and more on the fun. Because in a hum-drum adult world, who doesn’t want a little more fun?

But are these vitamins really as good for you as they seem? Do you really need to be taking them? 

In the case of gummy vitamins, one problem Dr. Shmerling sees is the sugar content. Some brands contain up to three grams of sugar per gummy. That may not seem like much, but if you’re taking multiple per day, it can start to add up.

SugarBear

The real problem, however, lies in the inaccuracy of the product. In 2016, Buzzfeed released a story in which they focused on the gummy vitamin brand SugarBear. For those who are less in-the-know, that’s the brand that has been endorsed by Instagram superstars, Kim Kardashian and her sister Kylie Jenner.

The story was a report on the findings Labdoor, a San Francisco-based lab that tests and grades dietary supplements. Labdoor determined that the nutrients listed on a bottle of SugarBear Hair were off by as much as twenty percent [6].

Labdoor’s testing found the bears contain seventy percent more biotin than what is claimed on the label, and 75 percent more B5 and B6. They also contain 26 percent less vitamin E than what the company claims [6].

A former production manager for Church and Dwight, the multinational conglomerate that makes Vitafusion and Lil’ Critters gummies, says that this is pretty typical of the gummy vitamin industry.

“The whole gummy-vitamin industry was the Wild West,” they said [5].

Not Getting What You Think

This is problematic because consumers are not getting the amounts of vitamins they think they’re getting. In particular, some vitamins have upper tolerable intake levels (ULs). There is a risk of toxicity with these vitamins if you take too much of them over time. This is particularly true for fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K.

This problem extends beyond gummy vitamins. Consumerlab.com tested 27 common multivitamin and mineral supplements available over-the-counter and found that almost half of them had lower or higher amounts of nutrients compared to what they claimed on the label [7].

Read: Does High Intake of Vitamins B6 and 12 Increase Hip Fracture Risk?

Do You Need to Take Vitamin Supplements?

Dr. Shmerling knows that his patients take these vitamins because it makes them feel like they’re taking control of their health, but it’s likely not doing much.

“It’s brilliant marketing,” he said. “I don’t think it’s necessarily moving the health of our country forward, but it’s good marketing.” [5]

So how much are vitamin and mineral supplements really helping you, and are they worth it? The answer is, it depends.

Shmerling says there is no evidence that the average healthy adult needs to take supplements. There have been multiple studies to show that supplements don’t do more than placebos for improving health. In fact, in 2013 the United States Preventive Services Task Force, an independent group of physicians who base their advice on solid evidence chose not to recommend a daily multivitamin [8]. While it’s important not to paint with broad strokes, and there are certainly exceptions for supplement use, this is concerning.

The problem is, unless you are deficient in a nutrient, taking it in the form of a supplement does not appear to provide many benefits. This is why Shmerling emphasizes that a healthy adult likely does not require vitamin and mineral supplements.

Then who does benefit from these products?

Shmerling says that there are certain groups, such as pregnant women, who should take a targeted supplement. Someone who is eating a balanced diet, however, in theory, shouldn’t need additional supplemental vitamins or minerals. 

People with certain health conditions or who are deficient in a specific nutrient may need to take a supplement. For example, adults with osteoporosis may require extra vitamin D or calcium beyond what they can get from their diet. Cofactors like magnesium and vitamin K2 may also be important to combine in this case.

Individuals with conditions that limit their bodies’ ability to absorb nutrients, like Chron’s or celiac disease, may benefit from a supplement. People who are deficient in vitamin B12 also often require supplementation.

Additionally, people with certain dietary restrictions that eliminate food groups, like lactose intolerance or veganism, might need to supplement their diet with missing nutrients [9]. These could include iron, b12, zinc, iodine, and sources of EPA and DHA (omega 3 fatty acids).

The main message here is that a supplement can be helpful when they’re recommended or prescribed by a health care professional, to address a specific health condition. Otherwise, most healthy adults can get everything they need from a balanced diet. If you think you may be deficient in any nutrients, talk to your doctor about having your bloodwork done so you can determine how to best improve your health.

Read: The 3 Vitamins that Help Prevent Brain Loss

There Are There Supplements Worth Taking

There are some nutrients that are more difficult to get through diet alone. In these cases, a supplement may help. As always, talk to your doctor, dietician, or other health care professional before taking certain nutrient supplements. There are always risks associated with taking anything, including dietary supplements. Here are some nutrients that may need to be supplemented in certain individuals.

Iron

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), iron deficiency anaemia is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies worldwide [10]. Women who are menstruating or pregnant, or people who are vegan or vegetarian are at a greater risk for deficiency [11].

Red meat, shellfish, organ meat, sardines, beans, seeds, and dark leafy greens are all good sources of iron. That being said, if you are deficient you may require a supplement. It is extremely important to get a blood test first, however, as taking too much iron can be very dangerous.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D acts like a hormone in your body and is important for a number of bodily functions. A deficiency, then, can affect your health in many ways. People living in northern areas with longer winters may have a particularly hard time getting enough of this important nutrient.

The symptoms of a vitamin D deficiency can be subtle and hard to spot, so pay attention to your body. If you think you may be deficient, talk to your doctor, who can make recommendations. It is possible to overdose on vitamin D, so you want to be very careful.

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is only found in sufficient amounts in animal foods, so if you are vegan or vegetarian, you may want to consider talking to your doctor about supplementation. Studies have suggested that up to eighty to ninety percent of vegans or vegetarians may be deficient in vitamin B12 [12].

Calcium

Calcium is essential for your heart, muscles, and nerves to function. It is also crucial for strong bones and teeth. Surveys have shown that the vast majority of Americans may not be getting enough of this important mineral in their diet [13].

Talk to your doctor to find out if you are at risk for a calcium deficiency.

Magnesium

Magnesium is essential for the structure of your bones and teeth, and is involved in more than 300 enzyme reactions. Almost half the US population is not getting enough of this important mineral [14]. Again, talk to your doctor or dietician to determine if you need to be taking a magnesium supplement.

Other notable nutrients that may need to be considered are vitamin K2, vitamin A, EPA/DHA omega 3 fatty acids, and iodine.

The Bottom Line on The Vitamin Industry

The reality is, if you’re taking one or two gummy vitamins every day, you’re likely not doing much to improve your health. You’re also likely not doing much to harm it either.

Quality Matters

Remember, the vitamin industry is exactly that- an industry. Some in the industry will try to convince you to buy their products, whether or not it provides any real benefits. Not all companies in the industry are like this, which makes seeking out high-quality brands all the more important. Look for a company with GMP standards, 3rd party verification for, and products backed with scientific evidence.

Supplements Not a Replacement

While there are certain circumstances in which a supplement can be beneficial, the best thing you can do for your body is to eat a balanced diet. No amount of supplementation is going to replace eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, drinking lots of water, and getting adequate sleep. You also cannot counteract poor eating habits by taking vitamin supplements. They are called supplements for a reason, to supplement your diet, not to replace it.

If you are concerned that you may be deficient in any nutrient, talk to a doctor, dietician, or other trusted healthcare practitioner. They will be able to run tests to determine where you’re lacking and make recommendations that will actually help you to improve your health.

Keep Reading: Dr. Fauci Recommends Taking These 2 Vitamins to Help Support Your Immune System

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