Victor Nevarez had tried dozens of prescription medications and powders to manage his irritable bowel syndrome, and nothing was working. Max Wittek wanted to curb his appetite without relying on drugs like Ozempic. And Rachel Conners was just looking for a way to make chewy cinnamon rolls without any gluten.
They all arrived at the same solution: psyllium husks.
In a wellness economy that revolves around colorfully packaged supplements, boutique fitness classes and celebrity-endorsed diet pills, psyllium husks may seem an unglamorous throwback. Derived from a shrub native to South Asia, where they have been used for centuries as a digestive aid, the husks look like the bedding found in a hamster cage, taste like sawdust and turn gelatinous when mixed with water.
Yet in the United States, they’ve become a hot-selling item. From 2018 to 2022, 249 new psyllium-husk products were released in the country, according to data from the market research company Mintel. Sales figures for such a splintered category are hard to come by, but a spokeswoman for the mass-market product Metamucil — essentially sweetened, orange-flavored psyllium-husk powder — said its sales have grown by double-digit percentages over the last several years.
Ms. Conners, 29, said the husks lend bounce to her gluten-free cinnamon rolls, without the bitter aftertaste that other additions can leave.
“It was astounding to find an ingredient like that,” said Ms. Conners, who writes the Bakerita blog from her home in San Diego. “When you are working with gluten-free recipes, there are so many ingredients that work but just don’t taste right.”
Psyllium husks are even more of a draw at a moment when many people are looking for inexpensive alternatives to new appetite-suppressing drugs.
Mr. Wittek, 33, a software engineer in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, who recently went on a ketogenic diet, has used psyllium husks to make his cauliflower-based pizza crust more filling. Psyllium, he said, “shushes my belly from saying, ‘Please put something in me.’”
An increased awareness of gut health is also driving sales.
“Everybody is now cognizant that they aren’t getting enough fiber,” said George Schaeffer, 38, a math professor in San Francisco who started adding psyllium husks to his granola in graduate school to improve his digestion. Previous generations, he said, weren’t comfortable discussing bowel issues. “Millennials and older Gen Z are totally fine with that stuff. We are looking for ways to improve our lives that are cheap.”
Unlike some more expensive made-for-Instagram health supplements, psyllium husks worked for him.
Dr. Pieter Cohen, an internist at Cambridge Health Alliance in Massachusetts, said psyllium husks can be helpful for constipation or diarrhea, but “it’s not a wonder drug,” he said. “Getting enough fiber is important, and the best way to do that is through real foods: fruits and vegetables,” which taste better than psyllium husks and contain other nutrients, he said.
And not all psyllium husk products, he cautioned, are the same. Dr. Cohen recommended avoiding those with added flavorings or sweeteners, which can be overly caloric, and taking psyllium husks with plenty of water — too much fiber and not enough water can lead to constipation. He also advised against using psyllium husks as an appetite suppressant — the supplement may curb hunger for a few hours, he said, “but then revs up our appetite a few hours later because we didn’t get any calories.”
Perhaps the people most bewildered by psyllium husks’ sudden popularity are South Asian Americans who grew up with the supplement, also known as isabgol or ispaghula, as a staple in their medicine cabinets. Because the crop grows abundantly in India, it is widely consumed on the subcontinent and among its diaspora. The lime green-and-white box of the B.G. Telephone Brand, one of the most commonly sold psyllium-husk products, provokes nostalgia in many who know it from childhood.
“It feels like a uniquely Indian dad thing,” said Divya Jain, 28, a researcher at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan who recalled how her father mixed psyllium husks with warm milk and rice ritually to help manage his digestion and blood sugar.
She was surprised when she recently visited a non-South Asian friend and saw psyllium husks in his cabinet. “I was like, ‘What are you doing with this?’” she said. He had bought them because he has celiac disease, and many gluten-free recipes call for psyllium husks.
Sami Safiullah, a data analyst in Boston, said his nighttime routine isn’t complete without preparing a cocktail of psyllium husks and water. “You have done something to help your digestion, and you can get ready to relax,” he said.
But Mr. Safiullah, 32, worries that psyllium husks may become the next turmeric or ashwagandha — South Asian remedies appropriated by American wellness culture. “I wouldn’t want it to be the next feature on Goop,” he said. (Psyllium husks have, in fact, been featured on Goop.)
They are also becoming a staple for gay men.
Alex Hall, who lives in Chicago, co-founded the website The Bottoms Digest to provide recipes and tips aimed at improving digestion for people preparing to have anal sex. Those on the receiving end, known as bottoms, often try to clear their digestive tracts before sex.
Because of a scarcity of sexual education for L.G.B.T.Q. people, he said, many turn to unhealthy behaviors to prepare for anal sex. “There has been a long-running joke for decades to not eat before you bottom,” said Mr. Hall, 30. He tried several fiber supplements that are advertised to gay men, but they were riddled with additives.
“Then I started looking at the big bottles of psyllium husk with the ugliest marketing,” he said. “They had three times the amount of pills in them. I started buying that, and I noticed quicker and better results.”
He posts links to various items on his site, and “it is always the psyllium husks that sells higher than anything I recommend: lube, nondairy milk, sex toys. It is always the fiber.”
When Mr. Nevarez, 33, a YouTube host in Scottsdale, Ariz., first tried psyllium husks to combat his irritable bowel symptoms, he became an evangelist for the supplement.
He made a video demonstrating how to blend psyllium husks with water. In the video, lending some style to the supplement’s bland image, he dresses up in a leather-trimmed apron and a collared shirt, cheekily refers to Metamucil as “Muce” and treats his psyllium husk concoction like a fancy cocktail.
That video caught the eye of Ahmed Ali Akbar, 35, an audio journalist whose perceptions of Metamucil had long been tainted by his father’s daily consumption of it. As a child, “I was repulsed by the orange-stained glass in the sink,” he said. But a few months ago, he moved to Chicago, and, suddenly, his digestion became irregular.
Now, he takes psyllium husks — not because of his father, but because of Mr. Nevarez’s video.