All-Natural Energy Drinks: A Better Buzz?

All-Natural Energy Drinks
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Once a niche product for adrenaline junkies and club kids, energy drinks are revamping to appeal to a wider, more grown-up audience. While traditional energy drinks, such as Red Bull, Monster and Rockstar, still dominate the $12.5 billion industry, many new players are opting for “clean” energy sources that tout the use of plant-based caffeine and other natural energy-boosting ingredients.

According to market research firm Symphony IRI, the energy drink market saw an 18.7 percent increase in 2012, and part of that recent growth comes from new, natural energy drinks (i.e. ones with ingredients you can actually pronounce). SPINS, a group that measures sales of natural products, reported that natural and organic products rose 13 percent in sales last year, while overall grocery sales grew just 3.4 percent. And according to Innova Market Insights, 124 energy drinks launched in the U.S. last year, a quarter of which were classified as “natural.”

Bye-Bye “Blue No. 2”

“A product with the label ‘natural’ only needs to contain five percent of a natural ingredient.”

So what makes natural energy drinks tick? The most popular ingredients are B vitamins, micronutrients that are naturally found in animal products and marketed as “energy vitamins” due to their role in energy metabolism. Caffeine comes second, followed by taurine, an amino acid that is suggested (but unproven) to improve mental and athletic performance. Guarana (an Amazonian berry with three times more caffeine than coffee beans), green tea, ginseng and yerba mate are also popular among beverage manufacturers for their stimulant properties.

By contrast, the “energy” in conventional concoctions, such as Monster, Red Bull and Rockstar, comes courtesy of caffeine (about 100 milligrams, the equivalent of an eight-ounce cup of brewed coffee), taurine, glucuronolactone (an artificial stimulant) and a blend of sucrose and glucose (simple sugars notorious for mood swings and energy crashes).

Very little research has been done on the effects of combining these ingredients, which is only one reason why the Food and Drug Administration has been aggressively investigating the safety of drinking these beverages. With consumer demand growing for healthier ingredients, the natural beverage companies quickly found their niche.

Natural Selection

Although manufacturers generally can’t make explicit health claims, they can promote their use of organic ingredients or the lack of artificial colors to appeal to the more health-conscious consumer. Sally Kravich, a holistic nutritionist based in Los Angeles and New York, however, warns that loosely defined words like “natural” and “organic” printed on a label can lead people to assume the contents are good for them, even if that’s not the case.

“A product with the label ‘natural’ only needs to contain five percent of a natural ingredient,” says Kravich. “So what you’re often really getting is liquid with some sort of sugar, natural flavorings — which could still be partly synthetic — and other ingredients packed with something high in caffeine.”

Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage, a Colorado-based health food chain that sells only organic and natural products (without artificial colors, preservatives, flavors or sweeteners), is aware of this discrepancy, and has come up with strict guidelines on how they assess the health value of their products. The organization made a decision early on to not sell energy drinks, despite their popularity.

“Every week we get pitched new offerings in this category, and many of them technically offer some kind of a natural ingredient like rhodiola, vitamins or a supplement, in addition to caffeine,” says Heather Isely, co-owner of Natural Grocers. “And every week we turn most of them away.”

In labeling products, Isely says “clean” shouldn’t be interchangeable for “healthy.” “There are a lot of mainstream companies that will exploit ‘natural’ in a cynical way. That’s why we felt it was important to have a higher standard. If the main ingredients aren’t good for you, it doesn’t matter if it’s natural or not.”

The few enhanced beverages that have been able to infiltrate Natural Grocers’ shelves include Brain Toniq, a mental booster made of choline, rhodiola, eleutherococcus extract, DMAE and blue green algae. And the store carries Runa Energy Drink, which it considers more of an alternative for people who don’t like the taste of coffee, green tea or yerba mate.

The Pep Squad

Instead of the punch-drunk surge usually associated with energy drinks, natural varieties are meant to add a more subtle zest using less caffeine, less sugar, and vitamins in place of chemicals.

Runa, one of the newest players in the market, is made from an Amazonian leaf called guayusa (with twice as much caffeine as coffee and twice the antioxidants of green tea). Tyler Gage, the co-founder of Runa, says the timing couldn’t have been better for the brand, which launched this year and is already sold at more than 4,000 stores nationwide.

“With all the media attention and regulatory backlash against leading energy drinks for being so unhealthy and intentionally marketing to kids, Runa is a great, natural alternative,” says Gage. In the same way coconut water has taken market share from sports drinks, Runa hopes to take market share from artificial energy drinks — and they’re not the only ones.

Another brand to harness the power of tea, Steaz created the world’s first all natural, USDA organic, fair-trade certified energy drink in 2008. It is lightly caffeinated with yerba mate and guarana. Vuka Workout, launched in 2009, is powered by rooibos tea, and Celestial Seasonings’ new ENERJI Green Tea Energy Shots, contains green tea extract.

And for those partial to coffee, Scheckter’s Organic Energy uses extracts from raw green coffee beans and guarana to power its drink. Starbucks has gotten into the game, too, with its Refreshers beverages (made with real fruit juice and raw coffee extract), while Bai chose to target the antioxidant-rich coffeefruit that surrounds the bean.

Some brands ditched caffeine altogether and instead use non-stimulant energy sources, such as Bioenergy Ribose®, a naturally occurring carbohydrate that regulates the body’s own energy synthesis. Bazi All Natural Energy uses it in its antioxidant-rich fruit juice. Solixir launched a drink in January called Think, made of just ginko biloba and a handful of other botanicals for a gentle lift.

Think Before You Drink

All the beverages mentioned above are free of chemicals and artificial sweeteners and contain fewer than 25 grams of sugar and 150 milligrams of caffeine (Kravich says you never need more than that). She also advises not to drink more than one energy-enhanced drink per day. And before you imbibe, always check the label for unhealthy levels of caffeine and sugar (which, in excess, can easily derail your health and fitness goals). Or, just save your energy and opt for coffee or tea — the original all-natural energy drinks instead.

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