The concept of wellness has undergone significant changes in the post-pandemic era. Health-conscious consumers have been driving the demand for them. Equally, they have broadened the lens with which holistic health is viewed. Particularly popular within this sphere are ingestible forms of wellness: what does this entail, and why is it so attractive?
In April 2020, Cristina Cuomo, editor of popular wellness magazine The Purist, summarised the shifts in wellness that we were beginning to witness at the time. She suggested that ‘we need to take care of ourselves in a different way than many of us have before’, since wellness can be attributed to ‘what we eat, breathe, drink and surround ourselves with’. Her natural remedies spanned ayurvedic food, vitamin supplements, body chargers, and even bleach baths. Evident in her statements then, is a positioning of wellness as not merely bodily health but also a phenomenon anchored in refined spiritual and mental nourishment. This is a turn to wellness products that has grown exponentially since, and continues to play out strongly. In 2021 in fact, with post-pandemic spending on the rise, the global wellness market was estimated at USD 1.5 trillion. In this blog we pick ingestible wellness products in particular, and unpack what this growth might suggest. This is important because the turn has implications to how we visualise health, as post-pandemic consumers.
To think of a wellness product is to think of products that identify as natural, holistic, and outside the purview of modern medicine. Carl Cederström, co-author of The Wellness Syndrome, has attributed our increased obsession with wellness as a tactic for combatting the loneliness brought on by social isolation. If this was amplified during pandemic lockdowns, it is because wellness has come to be popularly understood alongside its binary i.e. unwellness (that everyone must stay away from), and made tangible through ‘natural’ and ‘clean’ products (that help stay away from unwellness). Particularly interesting then is how people imagine the role these products play. The philosopher Alan Jay Levinovitz suggests that what people seek, and what they find in wellness products, is what modern medicine does not offer: empowerment. For him, modern medicine might provide remedial solutions for illnesses, but it does so without the reassurance that we humans are agents who can choose to achieve harmony with our worlds.
‘Natural’ wellness products and healing rituals on the other hand, promise their consumers something that transcends typical biology. They offer notions of good energy, cosmic oneness, restoration of balance, and purity.
Viewed against the threat to global health that we have but recently experienced, Levinotvitz turns to bioethicist Insoo Hyun and the concept of ‘therapeutic hope’ to conclude that what consumers really want are solutions that not only treat the causes of illnesses, but also create meanings for the targeted body; as perhaps what we have been collectively seeking in response to the uncertainty that we continue to face.
If it is these products through which we might have been accessing wellness as consumers, what exactly might be understood as wellness itself? Research suggests that the term ‘wellness’ by itself is ‘useful in its vagueness’, often going through recalibrations as societal priorities and markets shift. One such notable shift is the growing popularity of ingestible wellness products (or simply, ingestibles) pointing to how the modern consumer has taken quite strongly to the long-standing Hippocratic notion of food as medicine. Broadly speaking, ingestibles are a category of products that can be consumed as supplements targeting dietary health, beauty, fitness, and sleep, in the form of capsules, powders or liquids. Conor has described them as ‘food-adjacent’, often linked with words such as ‘glow’, ‘health’, ‘pure’ and ‘cosmic flow’. An accelerating factor behind the popularity of such offerings, is their endorsement by celebrities and social influencers. In short, wellness is now a conceptual space in the market, and one that brands (and therefore, products) are keen to occupy.
It is worth noting here that a key marketing approach to selling wellness has been found to be the creation of a sense of ritual and routine for customers, allowing them to interact with a product that will take them on a transformative, rejuvenating journey. This interaction primarily takes place in the digital realm, with brands and their ambassadors undertaking a performance of fitness, wellness, and holistic lifestyles. As an example, Goop (Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness empire) became the poster child of the industry by doing precisely that.
They represent almost immaterial concepts, and proceed to let consumers visualise and access them, without the prerequisite of medical necessity. Perhaps, then, wellness products are not just products, but embodied aspirations.
The question of why wellness products more widely and ingestibles more particularly continue to gain currency in popular imagination therefore has no one, simple answer. Marketing strategies and algorithmic frameworks tend to try and restructure the consumer demand into appealing, ephemeral sachets of hope and aspiration. And while it is easier for mainstream biomedicine to align itself to this aesthetic it should instead look at why people are choosing to access both preventative and curative medicine in this form.
Notwithstanding where this line of inquiry might lead us, it is worth drawing a parallel with the wonderful study of diet plans by Paxson as instruments that evangelised a black-boxing of health. As her work demonstrated, to understand the success and failures of such plans, it was analytically helpful to distinguish the tasting body, from the eating body, as even from the knowing body. For our purposes, this begs the question of whether it might help to similarly understand the ingestibles user through their intersectional user personas and experience journeys that mark distinctions between the (un)well body, the (un)informed body, and even the dialectical producer-consumer body.
Written by Ananya Damodaran, Researcher at LagomWorks. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for any queries on this article.