Taking vitamins often falls into the same category as checking our bank statements and meditating every morning. We know it's good for us, we know we should do it, but it tends to drop to the bottom of our priority list when life gets busy. If your daily dose of vitamins and supplements is longer than your to-do list, a new start-up called Gem wants to make your morning routine a little bit easier.
Made from 13 algae- and plant-based ingredients, the philosophy behind the first real food vitamin for women is startlingly simple. "Gem is from the ground up, not the lab," says founder Sara Cullen, who started the company when she discovered how artificial and unregulated the vitamin industry is. "Most of the supplements you find on the shelf today contain unnecessary ingredients including fillers, synthetic colorants, and harsh chemicals. With Gem, your body is better able to absorb a more complete and diverse set of real nutrients from whole plants."
Simple, right? Ahead, she talks us through her light-bulb moment, the science behind the green bite, and why it's time to ditch that cumbersome medley of daily pills.
The Lightbulb Moment
Like many of the best business ideas, Gem was born out of personal interest and frustration with existing products on the market. "It all started last year when I was suffering from a variety of health issues, from breakouts to severe inflammation," recalls founder Sara Cullen, who was formally a fellow with Venture for America and an entrepreneur-in-residence at an investment firm. "It turned out I was deficient in key nutrients, including vitamin D and iron, and also very sensitive to many of the foods that make up more than two-thirds of the world’s daily calories, including wheat, corn, and soy."
When Cullen began searching for "cleaner" nutrients in the supplement aisle, she struggled to find natural, plant-based products. "The products on the shelves are all stuffed with artificial, synthetic, processed junk that I didn’t trust putting in my body," she says. "So I went a level deeper and began researching real sources of nutrition and found algae—the cleanest, most sustainable source of nutrition I could find."
Cullen started taking the spirulina and noticed "drastic improvements" to her health, sparking further research about the power of algae. "By bringing all of these diverse, powerful, plant-based nutrients together, I realized I was beginning to challenge the conventional concept of a "vitamin"—what it looks like, how it’s made, where it's from, what’s inside, and who it's made for."
Cullen doesn't have a nutrition background, so she called on a team of leading scientists to research and inform the product during the development stage. "We worked with our scientific team to research and identify more than 15 key nutrients women need most to address common deficiencies in our modern diet and to help with everyday issues that plague women most, including daily stress and fatigue," she says.
While reports vary, studies indicate that the vast majority of Americans are nutrient deficient. Most notably, a 2011 report called What America's Missing suggests nine out of 10 adults are vitamin D–deficient while another study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that people who follow one of four major diets are consistently deficient in six micronutrients.
While pill or powder-form supplements have become the norm, Cullen points out they're not necessarily more effective than eating real food. "When ingesting real food, your body is slowly breaking down and metabolizing nutrients along with other critical plant compounds that come from whole foods that help our bodies digest and absorb nutrients efficiently," she explains. "Capsules often provide a more rapid release of nutrients and lack necessary compounds found in real food, leading to inefficient absorption of the nutrients they're meant to provide in the first place."
Cullen also learned that isolating nutrients can inhibit their effectiveness. "Most pills or powders today are constructed in a reductionist fashion using individually extracted nutrients (vitamin D + C + E) to form a multivitamin," she says. "But the reality is that when we purely isolate nutrients, they don't seem to work in the same way as they do in whole foods." Even if we altered our diets to include more nutrient-dense foods, it's tough to reach the recommended intake because our current food system is so starved of nutritional diversity and density, she says.
The product itself resembles a mini energy bar. Each "bite" is dark green and roughly the size of a quarter. Though small in size, it's packed with 13 plant-based nutrient-dense ingredients:
9. Chia seeds
10. Pumpkin seeds
13. Curry leaves
"Our beliefs are minimally processed, plants always, simpler is better, and algae whenever possible," Cullen says. Her team met with over 100 farmers and producers around the world to ensure that every ingredient passes four key criteria: It must be classified as real food, free of any unnecessary artificial additives, vegan-friendly, gluten-free, and algae-powered.
Now for the real test: Does it taste any good? The product is pretty pungent, but that's no indication of the flavor. Lemon extract gives each bite a slight citrus flavor and all in all, it's surprisingly palatable. Compared to popping multiple pills each morning, it's a simple, seamless way to ensure you're giving your body everything it needs—and none of the additives it doesn't.
Looking to improve your diet, too? Shop the nutrient-dense ingredients below.
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