Energy Drinks Promoting 'Clean' & 'Natural'

Competition, scrutiny leading to innovation, targeted marketing

ALBANY, N.Y. -- Energy drinks are expanding out of the convenience store cooler and into the health food aisle, according to an Associated Press report. As energy drink sales rise, more drinks are promoting organic ingredients, added juices, natural caffeine and so-called "clean" energy.

Examples include "natural energy drink" Guru; Steaz Energy, which according to the can is "good for the mind, body and soul"; and Runa's energy drink, made from Amazonian guayusa leaves.

Claims of cleaner caffeine boosts come as energy drinks find themselves under increasing scrutiny, particularly for their effects on children and adolescents. The word "organic" in front of "energy drink" might seem incompatible, but analysts say that as the market for energy drinks grows, it is also diversifying.

"I think we're going to see more beverages that offer energy functionality, but in nontraditional energy drinks," John Sicher, publisher of Beverage Digest, told the news agency.

Energy drink sales hit $12.6 billion last year, representing a 14% jump from 2008, according to the report, citing data from market research firm Packaged Facts.

While Red Bull, Monster and Rockstar still dominate the U.S. market, part of the recent growth comes from new kinds of products, including diet and natural energy drinks. Even the big players are getting into the act. Campbell Soup Co.'s V8 line of drinks now includes a canned V-Fusion + Energy drink made with juice and green tea. And Starbucks sells fruit-flavored Refreshers made with unroasted coffee beans.

"Because retailers are devoting more shelf space to energy drinks, there's always a battle among the competitors within the sector. So what you're seeing within the energy drink category is an innovation in products," John Lennon, president of Xyience, which makes Xenergy energy drinks, told AP.

But with growth comes greater scrutiny, the report said. Regulators have been increasingly concerned about caffeinated products, particularly energy drinks. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) in April said it would investigate the safety of caffeine added to snacks and gum and its effects on children and adolescents. The FDA said last year it was investigating reports of deaths linked to energy drinks and would take action if it could link the deaths to consumption of the drinks, including forcing the companies to take the products off the market. And San Francisco's city attorney in May sued Monster Beverage for marketing its energy drinks to children. The lawsuit came after Monster sued City Attorney Dennis Herrera over his demands that the company reduce caffeine levels in its drinks and stop marketing to minors.

At least on face value, some of the natural drinks seem to be aiming for a different audience. Xenergy calls itself the "energy drink of the health club, not the nightclub." The company expanded its line this year to include energy drinks with tea or lemonade.

Ray Jolicoeur, vice president marketing for Guru, said consumers of his product, which has been available in the United States since 2005, tend to be slightly more mature and educated. The entrepreneurs behind Runa said they are not looking for people who want "head throbbing, punched-in-the face energy" like some other brands.

"Some of them went after adrenaline junkies, others went after NASCAR fans," Runa co-founder Dan MacCombie told AP. "For us, it's just part of the people who are already ... being careful about what they are putting into their bodies."

Runa's energy drink hit the shelves recently around the country. It said its caffeine is from the guayusa "super leaf" and supposedly provides as much caffeine as coffee with more anti-oxidants than green tea.

They join nontraditional energy drinks like Guru and Steaz, which share display space with the likes of aloe juice at Dean's Natural Foods in Albany. Owner Dean King said the drinks eliminate "ridiculous stuff" like artificial flavors and colors. The kick still comes from caffeine, but some consumers say it's different.

"You know how most caffeinated products you feel that surge come over you? And then you drop and you feel miserable? This is more of an alertness," sCheryl Fairweather, a 36-year-old vegan and athlete from the Philadelphia area who drinks a daily can of Steaz at 4:00 a.m. before she trains, told the news agency. "It doesn't have that overwhelming effect, like you're on edge."

It's typical for the caffeine in natural energy drinks to come from organic and natural sources. But in the end, as Roland Griffiths, a professor of behavioral biology at Johns Hopkins University, notes, "caffeine is caffeine."

"It doesn't matter whether that compound is synthesized in a laboratory or is synthesized in a plant," he told AP. "It's going to have identical pharmacological, subjective and behavioral effects."

Guru says one 8.4-oz. can has 125 milligrams of "naturally occurring" caffeine. Steaz says a 12-oz. can of its energy drink contains 100 milligrams of caffeine from sustainably sourced ingredients. Ounce for ounce, that's in the ballpark of mainstream energy drinks, like Rockstar or Monster, which each deliver 160 milligrams of caffeine per 16-oz. can, according to the report, citing Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nutrition advocacy group.

The natural products generally do not make explicit health claims, opting instead to tout ingredients such as organic guarana or the lack of artificial colors. But Michael Jacobson, the executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said words like "natural" and "organic" printed on a can make consumers assume the contents are good for you, even if that's not necessarily so. "It implies that there's something helpful about them, and it's totally vague," he said.