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A Gummy for Whatever Ails You

From adult vitamins to CBD and THC versions, gummies have come a long way from the candy aisle. But how did we get to this place?

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Illustration of three glowing pink gummy bears atop Roman-style columns.

For every generation, for every affliction, there’s a gummy. Supplement brands like Grummies promise they can reduce inflammation (with 260-milligram doses of turmeric rhizome extract) or “detox and cleanse” (with 500 milligrams of apple cider vinegar) in a gummy product made without fillers, glucose, corn syrup, or gelatin. Wana Brands promises to “enhance [people’s] lives physically, creatively and emotionally” with its THC gummies, emphasizing product consistency and science in its branding. High-end CBD brand Gossamer sells the idea of luxury, with small-batch, high-end flavor; the publication/consumer brand’s first foray into edibles is a Turkish delight gummy by pastry chef Natasha Pickowicz. And there are gummies for those who just need a break. A recent ad for Martha Stewart’s CBD gummies features a styled scene of domestic disarray: a puddle of milk dribbling from a downed sippy cup, a laptop displaying a packed calendar, a toy car ominously perched on the keyboard. A product lineup appears on the bottom with the weirdly on-brand tagline: “Find your inner Martha.”

In other words, gummies — which can be made of polymers like plant-based starch (Swedish Fish), pectin (Fruit Gems), or animal-based gelatin (Haribo bears) — have come a long way from the candy aisle. The first mass-produced gummies appeared in England in the middle of the 19th century. Recent applications like vitamins and cannabis are new uses for an old form. Often, they’re associated with adults using a childlike delivery vehicle for something close to wellness: The Wall Street Journal Magazine recently asked if gummies are “The Only Way Gen Z Will Take a Vitamin?” Within the supplement category, “the term ‘gummy’ has grown 70.8 percent since last year,” says Yarden Horwitz, co-founder of Spate, a company that tracks wellness consumer trends through online search analysis. Searches for specific health ingredients like ashwagandha, touted as an all-purpose stress-reliever, have been increasing, too. But for others that have had their heyday, like CBD and apple cider vinegar, numbers are waning. “It’s almost like all these ingredients that are on their way out are seeing growth with gummies, making gummy actually more of the trend,” says Horwitz.

Outside of vitamins, popularized in the early 2000s, the most common association between gummies and wellness probably involves CBD and weed. Today, gummies make up about 80 percent of the overall edibles market, which itself comprises about 15 to 20 percent of the overall cannabis market. “It dominates,” says Joe Hodas, chief marketing officer at Wana Brands, one of the country’s leading manufacturers of cannabis gummies. “It’s not even close.” That trend has only grown since the start of the pandemic. According to Horwitz, CBD gummies had been gaining in popularity prior to a spike in searches in March 2020, during the early days of COVID, and the pandemic accelerated what had been a slow-building rise.

It’s easy to see why gummies have become so popular for cannabis products, but their ubiquity makes it hard to forget that they haven’t been around that long. “Early days, it was not necessarily fait accompli that gummies were going to be the superstar of the edibles industry,” says Hodas. When adult recreational use was legalized in Colorado in 2014, Hodas was working for a company that made other products, like beverages, which didn’t really take. But consumers quickly “demonstrated a very strong affinity for gummies,” Hodas says, which worked well for manufacturers looking to make a consistent, shelf-stable product. “They’re small, portable, discreet. They taste good, and don’t require a ton of eating.”

Yael Vodovotz, professor of food science and technology at Ohio State University, says that “from a scientific point of view,” gummies are a particularly flexible delivery vehicle. Vodovotz leads the university’s Center for Advanced Functional Foods Research and Entrepreneurship and has created gummy confections that deliver bioactives (compounds with anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, or antifungal benefits that go beyond basic nutrition) derived from grapefruits, strawberries, and black raspberries. Gummies can be made with many different polymers, which allow for a range of inclusions — you can “take your drug of choice and put it inside that matrix,” she says. Some have proteins, some have carbs. Vodovotz uses seaweed-derived agar for her grapefruit confections, to balance the effect the acid has on the gummy’s texture. Pectin is popular in Europe and Asia, but less so in the U.S., where starch dominates the market. “It’s a very crackly bite compared to the gelatin or the pectin, which are much more chewy,” Vodovotz says. “But it just depends, they have different properties and uses.”

Finding the right balance of THC in gummy form requires “a lot more science than many other platforms,” says Mike Hennesy, Wana’s vice president of innovation. Wana recently released a gummy that encapsulates cannabis oil in a water-soluble outer layer, which Hennesy says allows the body to metabolize it more quickly. Wana also has plans to add more active compounds from the cannabis plant besides THC and CBD, like terpenes, which have psychological responses in the brain that create their own effects. “There’s going to be a lot more use cases that are more specific rather than just a ratio of cannabinoids,” says Hennesy, “which I think parallels with what we’re seeing for other use cases for gummies outside of the cannabis market.”

And that’s creating an increasingly squishy relationship between health, food, and consumerism. More than, say, powders or pills, gummies make wellness, however you define it, feel convenient and cutting-edge, something to be savored instead of swallowed. “The thing about gummies is that they help you stick with a routine,” says Nick Michlewicz, a self-described health nut and co-founder of Grummies, which he launched this past year with partner Colin Darretta. “They make health feel more accessible and more fun, there’s like a reward to do it.” The language surrounding gummies — a “learn more” page on Wana’s site guides users with words like “science,” “chemical constituents,” and “body’s regulatory network” — suggests precision and predictable results. That’s attractive to consumers who have grown accustomed to fine-tuning the way their minds and bodies feel at any given time.

Because they’re so endlessly customizable, gummies have a way of creating their own use cases, or solutions to problems that consumers may not have known that they had or might not really have at all. Is your skin looking sallow? There’s a gummy for that. Have you been feeling cranky? Perhaps you’ve been having trouble sleeping? Gummies turn supplements into products that promise specific benefits, making personal what was once clinical. They lend an air of science and specificity to something that was nebulous and holistic. They give consumers a sense of control, in a self-contained package. Clicking “add to cart” on a gummy that’s formulated with a trendy active ingredient, and branded by a trendy agency? Doesn’t seem too labor-intensive. (Day Job, which did design and copy for Grummies, also worked on “we canned a feeling” beverage brand Recess.)

Playful branding has become a requirement for even the most mundane of products (underwear, acne care), and supplements, especially gummy ones, are no exception. The comparative seriousness of a brand like Moon Juice (“Self care for communal care”) launched in 2011, versus Grummies (“Part of a widespread conspiracy to trick you into being healthy”), both of which pitch themselves as ambassadors of the plant-based wonders of the world, is indicative of how much wellness products have become lifestyle products — complete with branding that sells Fun. Packaging design emphasizes bright or pastel colors, direct-address copy, fonts designed to look good both on-screen (say, in an Instagram ad) and, eventually, on a store shelf, alongside other products that vie for your eye. The same goes for low-sugar gummy candies like Smart Sweets and Behave, which in another decade might have been presented as priggish. That gummies have become a trusted form at a time when so many consumers are fixated on purity in terms of ingredients, on being able to pronounce everything on a nutrition label, speaks to their unique classification as medicine/candy/consumer product.

The global wellness industry has more than doubled since 2010, going from an estimated $2 billion to $4.5 billion annually. Gummies are a natural progression of a dynamic that’s slowly been shifting away from doctors’ advice and toward individual choice, leaving consumers to wade through various claims and products. In the vast world of wellness, gummies are familiar. They’re an easy sell that can be used to sell anything. A blend of consistency, novelty, and small wins, in the form of products that can be bought again and again. They make our obsession with our bodies and ourselves seem less like a struggle, and more like a game. Gummies aren’t always controlled substances, but they make you feel in control.

Rachel del Valle is a freelance writer and copywriter based in New York. Paulina Almira is a graphic designer and digital illustrator whose work draws from retrofuturistic styles to create playful, surreal compositions.