These days, the options for dietary supplements are virtually limitless. And whatever substance you want to ingest, you can find it in gummy form. Omega-3? You bet. Vitamin C? Absolutely. Iron? Calcium? Zinc? Yes, yes, and yes. There are peach collagen rings and strawberry-watermelon fiber rings. There are brambleberry probiotic gummies and “tropical zing” gummy worms that promise to put you in “an upbeat mood.” There are libido gummies and menopause gummies. There are gummies that claim to boost your metabolism, to reinforce your immune system, to strengthen your hair, your skin, your nails. For kids, there are Transformers multivitamin gummies and My Little Pony multivitamin gummies.
I could go on. A simple search for gummy vitamins on the CVS website turns up more than 50 results. This is the golden age of gummies, and that can seem like a great thing. Who wouldn’t rather eat a peach ring than pop a pill? But if the notion that something healthy can taste exactly like candy seems too good to be true, that’s because it is.
Gummy supplements are a relatively new phenomenon, but gummy candies are not. Starch-based Turkish delight has been around since the late 18th century. In 1860s England, some of the earliest gummies were popularly known as “unclaimed babies” (because they were shaped like infants, many more of which apparently were unclaimed back then). In the 1920s, the German confectioner Hans Riegel founded Haribo and created the gelatin-based gummy bears still consumed around the world today. It would be another 60 years, though, before Haribo gummies arrived on American shores. In the decades that followed, gummy sweets became ubiquitous, taking almost every shape imaginable: worms, frogs, sharks, snakes, watermelons, doughnuts, hamburgers, french fries, bacon, Coke bottles, bracelets, Band-Aids, brains, teeth, eyeballs, genitalia, soldiers, mustaches, Legos, and, as in days of old, children.
Only in the late 1990s and early 2000s, though, did the supplement industry begin experimenting with gummies. The driving principle was not a new one: As Mary Poppins put it, “A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.” Flintstones multivitamins have been around in their hard, chewable form since 1968; even if superior to pills, they basically taste like sweet, vaguely chemical chalk.
Gummy vitamins, on the contrary, are virtually indistinguishable from the treats they’re modeled on. You could pop men’s multis at the movies the same way you could Sour Patch Kids. (Or Starburst gummies, or Skittles gummies, or Jolly Rancher gummies—pretty much every non-chocolate candy now comes in gummy form.) Which is probably why they’ve become so popular, says Tod Cooperman, the president of ConsumerLab, a watchdog site that reviews supplements. When he founded ConsumerLab in 1999, gummy supplements hardly existed. Adult gummy vitamins didn’t hit the market until 2012. Now, Nina Puch, a scientist who formulates gummies for the food and pharmaceutical consulting company Knechtel, told me, three-quarters of the gummies she designs are supplements rather than candies. Gummy supplements are everywhere. They’re a rapidly expanding $7 billion–plus industry, and by 2027 that figure is projected to double.
But what makes gummy supplements appealing also makes them concerning. The reason they taste as good as candy, it turns out, is because on average, they can contain just as much sugar as candy does. The earliest gummy supplements, Cooperman told me, were basically just candy with vitamins sprayed on. They’ve come a long way since then: The active ingredients are now carefully integrated into the gummy itself by scientists such as Puch, and done so in a way that preserves as much of the gummy’s flavor and consistency as possible. But the nutritional essentials haven’t changed much—the average gummy vitamin contains about the same amount of sugar in a serving as one Sour Patch Kid does.
A little extra sugar is not the end of the world. But there’s also the danger of overdoses. Especially for children, it’s important that medicines and supplements not taste too good, Cora Breuner, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington, told me. Consumed in excess, many of the vitamins and nutrients delivered in supplements can be toxic. They have to strike an appropriate balance, neither tasting so bad that kids refuse to take them nor so good that they’ll want too much. Most gummy supplements seemingly fail the latter test, and not without consequences. Annual calls to Poison Control for pediatric melatonin overdoses have risen 530 percent over the past decade, in part, experts suggested to me last year, because of the hormone’s increased availability in gummy form. The overdose numbers are also up for multivitamins.
The risk of overdose can be greatly mitigated by simply taking care to store gummies where kids can’t get them. The more significant problem, Cooperman told me, is that gummies are simply a less reliable delivery mechanism than the alternatives. Vitamins and many other compounds degrade far faster in gummies’ half-liquid, half-solid state than in traditional pill or capsule form, he said, because gummies offer less protection from heat, light, moisture, and other contaminants.
To compensate, supplement makers will in many cases load their products with far more of a substance than advertised on the packaging. Some overage is to be expected with all supplements, but the margins for many gummy supplements are gargantuan. “Gummy vitamins were the most likely form to contain much more of an ingredient than listed,” ConsumerLab wrote in its 2023 review of multivitamins and multiminerals. Of the four gummy supplements reviewed, three contained nearly twice as much of the relevant substance as they were supposed to, and the fourth contained only around three-quarters as much.
A recent analysis of melatonin and CBD gummies yielded similar results: Some contained as much as 347 percent the amount of those substances stated on the label. Because the FDA generally does not regulate supplements as drugs, such wild variability is accepted in a way that it isn’t for actual pharmaceuticals. (In 2020, the FDA granted the first-ever Investigational New Drug Application for a gummy medication, though no such product appears to have come to market.) “If you have something that you need a specific amount of every time you take it, gummies are not the way to go,” says Pieter Cohen, a doctor at Cambridge Health Alliance, in Somerville, Massachusetts, and the lead author of the melatonin-CBD research. Taking too much of a supplement is generally not as dangerous as taking too much of a prescription drug, but, as Breuner noted, many supplements taken in sufficient excess can still be toxic. When I asked Cooperman what advice he had for people trying to navigate all of this, his answer was simple: “Don’t buy a gummy.”
Perhaps the rise of gummy supplements was inevitable. The supplement industry has become so big in part because it can promote its products as, say, boosting the immune system or supporting healthy bones, without subjecting them to the strict regulatory demands imposed on pharmaceuticals. Supplements blur the line between food and drug, and gummy supplements—designed and marketed on the premise that healthy stuff can and should taste as good as candy—only intensify that blurring. Cohen, for one, thinks the distinction is worth preserving. Calcium supplements should not go down as easy as Haribos. That may be a bitter pill to swallow, but not everything can taste like candy.