More people are taking supplements today than ever before—80 percent of Americans, to be exact. “The fact of the matter is that it’s really hard to get the diversity of plant foods you need in your diet from what you’re eating on a daily basis for many consumers,” says Sara Cullen, the founder and CEO of supplement company GEM, which launched in 2019. “This is where supplements come into play: They’re designed to provide your body nutrients on top of what you’re getting from conventional foods.”
With supplementation at an all-time high—and the global supplements market projected to grow from its current $156.1 billion valuation to $331.6 billion by 2030—it’s only natural that new brands (like GEM) would crop up to give consumers an alternative way to take their vitamins. In 2023, a whole new category of products will enter the previously pill-dominated picture: bite-bized supplements made entirely from whole foods, designed to help you nosh your way to better nutrition.
While these new food-based supplements are far from pills and capsules, they’re also distinctly different from the gummy vitamins and protein bars of the world. Rather, the unrefined, artificial-ingredient-free “bites” are made entirely from blends of nutrient-dense plants, herbs, and spices (such as pumpkin seeds, mushrooms, kelp, cranberries, and turmeric). But they’re designed to satisfy daily vitamin and mineral needs, not satiate your hunger.
Take GEM’s Lemon Raspberry Daily Essentials: Each dice-sized bite is made from a blend of 15 different plant foods (like dates, algae, curry leaves, and chia) designed to provide 100 percent of your daily vitamin D, folate, biotin, and more. Eating one is similar, in ways, to downing a mini fruit-and-nut bar or energy bite. They’re chewy, earthy, and subtly sweet, thanks to the dates and lemon-raspberry flavor, but they’re not going to fill you up if your stomach is rumbling.
Rootless, a whole-food-based supplement company that launched in early 2022, offers a similar experience—popping one of its Coconut Chai, Double Strawberry, or Orange Pistachio Daily Bites feels more like diving into a box of chocolates than swallowing a pill. The truffle-sized, seaweed-, and almond-butter-based supplements (which pack iron, iodine, fiber, and omega-3s) have a delicate dusting of coconut flakes or toasted almonds on top and come packaged in a sleek soft-pink tin laced with gold embossed lettering: “No-pill nourishment starts today.”
Another key player is Tend, the world's first food-based prenatal vitamin product, which launched in 2021. The company uses over a dozen plants—like maitake mushrooms and maca—to pack 100 percent of the daily value for folate and vitamin D (plus thiamin, choline, vitamin K, and other key nutrients for pregnancy) into its Peanut Butter Chocolate, Lemon Berry, and Chocolate Sea Salt bars. Tend’s co-founder and director, Behzad Varamini, PhD, says that the inspiration for Tend came when his wife and co-founder, Hannah, struggled to swallow her prenatal vitamins when carrying their first child. “Many people don’t enjoy taking pills; this is what’s known as pill fatigue,” he says. “But when you’re pregnant, nausea is a huge challenge and amplifies the struggle with pills. Many of our customers have told us they cannot stomach their pills, let alone keep them down.”
Other edible options on the market include Glow Beauty Fuel, a snack bar brand co-founded in 2020 by Maren Jensen, the founder of Stila Cosmetics. The brand’s new bars (which hit the market in September) come in flavors like Orange Dream, Cherry Grazie, and Chocolate Mania and include 15 beauty-focused ingredients, like hyaluronic acid, vitamin C, hibiscus, and collagen. Soon to follow was Big Little Bar, which officially released itsfirst product—mini snack bars made with 100 percent of your daily essential vitamins and omega-3s—in October. If the idea of candy-as-vitamins appeals, you may also like Sourse, which launched in 2020 with actor Sarah Hyland as its creative director. It makes vitamin-infused dark chocolate bites targeted towards improving your skin, energy levels, focus, and more.
“Research has shown that certain vitamins and minerals are linked to a lower risk of death from heart disease or stroke, only when these nutrients come from real foods.” Marisa Silver, RDN
Keep in mind that food-based supplements aren’t less effective than pills or capsules—in fact, quite the contrary is true. There is a significant body of research backing the fact that wholefoods are more likely to supply the bioavailable—meaning easiest to absorb—form of nutrients to the body than pills (or gummies). “Supplements exist to help people achieve what they might struggle with through diet, but they can’t match or replace real foods simply because they don’t contain the unique and complex combination of nutrients found in whole foods,” says Marisa Silver, RDN, a Miami-based registered dietitian and founder of Vivrant Nutrition. “Research has shown that certain vitamins and minerals are linked to a lower risk of death from heart disease or stroke, only when these nutrients come from real foods.”
Silver adds that traditional supplements typically lack other important compounds you find in whole foods, like antioxidants and fiber. “Kale contains vitamins K, C, antioxidants, and many other nutrients. You cannot find a replication of kale as a supplement,” Silver says. Of course, to suggest that all consumers up their vitamin intake by exclusively adding a mountain of kale to their daily diets would be both short-sighted and ineffective—this is the reason that pill-based supplements came to exist in the first place. What we’ll be seeing in 2023 is some form of full-circle moment: Food-based supplements can satisfy consumers’ additional nutritional needs without asking them to swallow pills or impractical amounts of produce (and fatty fish, and so on).
Dr. Varamini also says consumers have gotten significantly savvier about reading product labels, which he believes has pushed the food-based supplement category forward. Why? Foods have stricter labeling requirements and regulatory standards than supplements, meaning snackable supplements can offer more transparency to consumers than their pill counterparts. “Unlike prescription medications, [pill-based] dietary supplements are not approved for safety or efficacy,” says Silver. The labeling—claims included—on the packaging of supplements also doesn’t get approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before they’re sold to the public.
It’s even clearer that food-based supplements will be taking a bite out of the multivitamin market when you take a look at what’s to come next year. From GEM (which received $10.5 million in funding in 2021), expect new flavors of its classic Daily Essentials bites in early 2023. You can also look for a range of whole-food seaweed-powered health bites for kids and adults from Rootless (as well as new flavors of their classic Daily Bites). Sourse is planning to add a sleep-focused supplement to its docket, and Big Little Bar plans to roll out several more flavors early in 2023. Meanwhile, Supergut, a gut-health-focused nutrition brand founded in June, just launched its first line of gut-boosting chocolate and strawberry snack bars. The bars are packed with prebiotic fiber and resistant starch, thanks to foods like green bananas and oats; the brand plans to incorporate its prebiotic fiber blend into additional packaged snacks next year.
“We could take these gut-boosting compounds and nutrients and put them into pills, but I’m a personal believer in the power of food,” says Marc Washington, Supergut’s founder and CEO. “After all, people love to eat!” ✙
Photography by Tim Gibson, Art Direction by Jenna Gibson for Well+Good