Maybe you learned about Athletic Greens on an episode of “Pod Save America,” or between gruesome tales on “Crime Junkie.” Perhaps you heard an ad for it on Dax Shepard’s podcast, “Armchair Expert,” or Conan O’Brien’s or, if it’s more your style, Joe Rogan’s. You might have even caught wind of it on a New York Times podcast, like The Daily.
“The secret to making a successful podcast is you have to use Athletic Greens,” joked the writer and editor Clint Carter in a tweet.
For a company that’s been around for more than a decade, it seems to have appeared out of nowhere. Athletic Greens aggressively advertises (and sells) only one product: AG1, a moss-toned powder that costs $99 for a 30-serving bag and claims to be “all you really need, really.”
But it isn’t a meal replacement nor is it a pre- or post-workout drink, as the brand’s name implies. AG1 promises “75 vitamins, minerals, whole-food sourced superfoods, probiotics and adaptogens” in one scoop. The ingredient list is biblically long and rife with parentheses, its components categorized by wellness buzzwords: “Alkaline, Nutrient-Dense Raw Superfood Complex” (including spirulina, wheatgrass and broccoli flower powder), “Nutrient Dense Extracts” (pea protein isolate, ashwagandha extract) and “Digestive Enzyme & Super Mushroom Complex” (like dietary enzymes and mushroom powders).
Simply put, it is a drinkable multivitamin and probiotic.
Within the sleek, emerald packaging — designed, it seems, to make opening it feel ceremonial — is a bag of AG1 and a clear branded bottle. The instructions recommend mixing one 12-gram scoop of powder with eight to 12 ounces of cold water and drinking the concoction on an empty stomach (“or as recommended by your health care professional”).
After a purchase, Athletic Greens sends customers an email suggesting ways to make the dietary supplement taste better: Add juice, mix it with plant-based milk or blend it into a smoothie. Sweetened with stevia and flavored with pineapple and vanilla, the powder tastes exactly how it sounds: like broccoli pretending to be a milkshake.
In a sponsored TikTok for the brand, Callie Jardine, a fitness influencer, uses AG1 to make what she calls her “hot girl green smoothie.” Adding the green powder, she says in the video, helps with her “really intense digestive problems.” (Everyone knows hot girls have stomach issues.)
But Athletic Greens is not just for hot girls and athletes. Current customers are “50 percent women and 50 percent male,” and range from ages 20 to 70, the company said in an email, with the largest proportion of consumers falling between 30 and 50 years old. The breadth of podcasts the product has appeared on makes one thing clear: Chris Ashenden, Athletic Greens’s founder, wants everyone to drink his product.
“There’s this cultural phenom where people want to be in control of their own health,” said Mr. Ashenden, an entrepreneur from New Zealand, where AG1 is produced. “And I don’t think the genie is going back in the bottle.”
As Covid-19 spread in March 2020, sales for multivitamins in the United States rose by more than 50 percent compared with the same period the previous year, and the supplement industry was valued at $151.9 billion in 2021 by Grand View Research, a market research company. In January, it was announced that Athletic Greens, which Mr. Ashenden started in 2010, had raised $115 million in venture capital, and that the company’s valuation had hit $1.2 billion.
Influencer partnerships on TikTok, along with podcasts, seem to be a high priority for the brand’s marketing — posts bearing the hashtag #agpartner proliferated on the platform after the funding announcement and have been viewed more than 38 million times.
“It would literally pop up on all of my social medias,” said Lexi Fadel, a 27-year-old physical therapist in Los Angeles. After struggling with hormonal acne and bloating, she said, “I was willing to try anything.” Influencers convinced her that AG1 was the answer. Ms. Fadel purchased AG1 twice — despite the taste. “Not the best,” she said. “It was to my benefit, so I forced it down.”
After three months without changes, she decided to give it up. “I consume enough greens on my own,” she said.
There’s nothing novel about people craving control of their health, and marketing food and beverages as comprehensive health solutions is not a new phenomenon: One-stop-shop predecessors include Soylent, beloved by bio-hacking tech bros, and Daily Harvest, a smoothie company and influencer darling recently embroiled in a recall scandal.
AG1’s purported benefits are vague enough to compel credulous consumers. It “promotes gut health,” “supports immunity,” “boosts energy” and “helps recovery,” the company claims. Of course, there’s fine print: “These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.”
“The overarching drive to buy something like that is not feeling good enough about your body,” said Christy Harrison, a dietitian and author whose forthcoming book focuses on the traps of the wellness industry. “It’s a slippery slope. You feel bad about yourself, you want to self-optimize and you think that you can do that through this wellness phenomena, like Athletic Greens or Soylent or intermittent fasting.”
At the core of our obsession with wellness, and the proliferation of these products, said Alissa Rumsey, a dietitian and author of the book “Unapologetic Eating,” is the very human fear of death and desire for control. The wellness industry perpetuates both. “It can make people feel like their health is 100 percent in their control,” she said. “But it’s not.”
“We know what happens when we eat the whole fruit or the whole vegetable,” Ms. Rumsey said. “It’s not quite as clear when they’re broken down into the compounds in these powders.”
So how, in the rapidly expanding and highly unregulated world of wellness, is a consumer to make an informed choice?
Those who can afford to experiment with something like Athletic Greens — like Ms. Fadel — are probably eating enough fruits and vegetables, Ms. Harrison said.
“Most people don’t need supplements of any kind — whether its green powders or pill supplements.”