Ritual founder and Chief Executive Katerina Schneider. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
How do you stay sharp and fit despite fatigue and age? By consuming substances extracted from blueberries, flowers and algae, say the makers of a new group of unregulated and unproven health pills.
Trusting natural chemicals to solve inevitable ailments is familiar to anyone who has visited a GNC store or contributed to the $30 billion spent annually in the U.S. on dietary supplements.
But the new supplement firms are grabbing attention because they’re founded and funded by people more at home at a Silicon Valley technology campus than a late-night infomercial.
Led by tech world veterans and funded by venture capitalists, dietary supplement start-ups such as Ritual, Elysium and Nootrobox are peddling daily multivitamins and energy-boosting gels with transparency and testing that’s turning heads in the industry. They’re taking the unusual steps of pointing to studies that justify ingredient choices and even publishing full lab test results.
“We’re not introducing a new drug or something very different,” Ritual Chief Executive Katerina Schneider said. “We’re making something a lot better. The industry needs this disruption.”
That’s plausible in an industry long associated with unreliable promises and dodgy characters. And the start-up’s deep pockets and tech pedigree may cut through skepticism and instill a sense of authenticity craved by younger customers.
But there are signs that these start-ups, like many supplement companies before them, leave out key facts and overstate health claims.
Why investors fund supplement start-ups
Supplement start-ups are gaining traction as venture capitalists spread hundreds of millions of dollars in cash to lucrative areas beyond apps and gadgets.
The investors are lending their credibility from successful bets on Snapchat, Uber and Dollar Shave Club to offbeat ideas in food and health. They’re backing products that resemble eggs and meat — hoping to produce them in more environmentally friendly ways — and start-ups seeking to turn breakfast, lunch and dinner into slurpable meal-replacing drinks.
Investors expect big paydays because of several apparent cultural shifts. People now are accustomed to paying monthly for a ration of products and services, whether it’s supplements or shows on Netflix. Having the Internet at their fingertips all day has made younger consumers more attuned to what they eat — and they prize products that are cheap, simple and affordable.
Those desires are at odds with business models of struggling retailers such as GNC, but neatly addressed by the start-ups.
The firms also aspire to be more than pill pushers. By adding services such as coaching and offering online videos on healthy living, the start-ups could be as essential to millennials as Centrum or Weight Watchers are to seniors.
About half of U.S. adults and a third of children take supplements: some by choice, some by doctors’ orders, some because they believe that their dietary restrictions (vegan, dairy-free, etc.) leave them unfulfilled. The tech-backed approaches could convert the other 50%, which skews younger, investors say.
Elysium and Nootrobox each say they have tens of thousands of subscribers, and Ritual reports 500% growth in subscribers since Jan. 1.
Many others are getting involved. Actress Gwyneth Paltrow’s online shop Goop peddles pill packs such as “High School Genes.” Life Boost sells a blender that mixes powders into “vitamin shots,” claiming that drinking vitamins leads to better absorption.
Where supplement start-ups fall short
Supplements can launch and boast about improving health without approval of the Food and Drug Administration, as long as they aren’t claiming to treat or prevent specific diseases.
The policy enables companies to sells billions of dollars of goods without authenticated evidence of their worth. Though companies typically stick with ingredients the FDA deems safe, the agency doesn’t test the combinations found in supplements.
“It’s not to say these products don’t have a role in health, but we don’t have a lot of clinical trials investigating that question,” said Regan Bailey, a Purdue University associate professor of nutritional science.
The start-ups’ websites tout research that they argue justifies ingredients and sometimes suppliers. They are far more specific than traditional supplement websites, where suppliers go unnamed and relevant studies aren’t cited.
But researchers the start-ups mention aren’t ready to recommend the pills.
Many study authors expressed surprise that their work has been referenced and shared their dismay about how their findings had been portrayed. The Los Angeles Times contacted authors of about 40 studies described on Ritual’s website, 10 from Elysium and seven from Nootrobox. Altogether, more than a dozen authors raised concerns.
Ritual’s semi-clear, vitamins-and-minerals pill aims to give women more vibrant lives and looks. Backed by $5 million and inspired by its founder’s pregnancy-fueled search for safer products, Ritual promises an “obsessively researched vitamin directly to your door.” It paraphrases studies into short declarations on its website, identifying only the authors, not the works themselves.
Purdue’s Bailey, who is mentioned on Ritual’s iron webpage, and several others described the company’s conclusions as unsound.
Sarah Booth of Tufts University said that by condensing her work into “food sources for K2 are difficult,” Ritual’s site is incorrect because she has found that the vitamin is abundant in pork and dairy products. In addition, Booth said there’s no established dietary requirement for K2, making it difficult to argue that people don’t get enough.
Ritual intended to provide a synopsis that the “non-scientist” could “wrap her head around,” founder Schneider said. Studies didn’t get links because of regulatory concerns and authors weren’t contacted since the works were in the public domain. Schneider also thought that the presentation wouldn’t mislead consumers into assuming that the scientists endorsed the product.
But a Los Angeles Times inquiry prompted Harvard University professor Goodarz Danaei to have a school attorney request that Ritual remove a reference to his study about omega-3 oil. Danaei said the company complied. He had concerns because he examined fish-based oil, not the algae-based variety that Ritual employs. The company contends that the options are scientifically equivalent.
With Elysium, several researchers described feeling conflicted about the New York City firm’s efforts. The company — co-founded by a former venture capitalist and a Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher — has received more than $20 million to produce sand-colored pills to combat aging. They say ingesting chemicals in quantities not feasible to attain through consuming blueberries, grapes and milk kicks the body into a state of hunger that extracts more life out of cells.