Sickly sweet, garishly coloured and guaranteed to keep you awake, not a pre-teen with a STEPS record but the arsenal of energy drinks currently weighing down shelves at a petrol station near you. With Coca Cola launching a new product, 'Play' on the South African market, the energy drinks market is in the PharmiWeb spotlight. Widely touted as the next high-growth sector of the giant soft drinks industry, a second attempt by the market leader for a slice of the cake (Coke previously tried a product called 'Lift' in Australia and New Zealand) is a significant move. Energy Drinks have been backed up by some heavy duty marketing spend in recent years, offering benefits ranging from 'Alertness fast' to 'wings' but consumers, in the UK at least, have expressed concern both about their effectiveness and their ingredients. So is it all pseudo-science along the lines of the humble trainer or can energy drinks make a valuable contribution to users? PharmiWeb tries to separate the facts from the fiction.
The stalwart of the UK market, SmithKline Beecham's Lucozade has been around since 1938 and has dominated the UK market for much of that time. Having successfully distanced itself from a traditional image of hospital bedsides, SB have relaunched the brand as a sporting aid and backed it with big marketing money. Despite this lengthy history, average consumption per head of energy drinks in the UK though is still low at only 1.2 litres per annum. In Austria, the home of Red Bull, that figure is closer to 3 litres per head. Japan, however, is the behemoth of the energy drink industry. The Japanese market leader, Lipovitan has been around since 1962 and currently has sales of an astonishing 2 million bottles a day. It was this penchant for energy drinks in the Far East that prompted well travelled Austrian businessman Dietrich Mateschitz to formulate and launch his Red Bull drink in Austria in 1987. Red Bull is perhaps the market driver for the expansion of the energy drink industry in the UK. It's ubiquitous TV advertising and tagline, 'Stimulation for Body and Mind' has made it the energy drink for the young and affluent and a product that is as comfortable in any bar in the country, as in the average corner shop.
The energy drink arena is awash with fashionable terminology, like the capaciously bearded octogenarian on a Tibetan hillside, we attempt to unravel what it all means…
Hypotonic - Hypotonic drinks have a concentration of active ingredients that is less than the bodies own, the benefit here is that these ingredients will be absorbed quicker than water due to osmotic pressure and will therefore rehydrate the consumer more rapidly. Hypotonic drinks should be more effective in negating the problems of dehydration than water alone.
Cheap substitute: 250ml fruit juice, 750ml water, 1g salt.
Hypertonic - Hypertonic drinks have a concentration of active ingredients greater than that of body fluids, again due to osmotic pressure, they will be absorbed more slowly than water and can be used to provide a steady flow of energy, if combined with a suitable form of carbohydrate.
Cheap substitute: 1l fruit juice, 1g salt
Isotonic - Isotonic drinks complete the set by being in balance with your body, giving an absorption rate the same as water.
Cheap substitute: 500ml fruit juice, 500ml water, 1g salt
The key ingredients in any energy drink are caffeine, in a variety of forms, and sugar. Some drinks use Guarana, a natural source of caffeine, but the majority go for the straight chemical. Caffeine levels aren't labelled on the cans in the UK but studies have shown that energy drinks have nearly four times the amount of caffeine in them as leading colas. Sugar levels are also considerably in excess of average soft drinks, Purdey for example has the equivalent of 13 teaspoons of sugar in one 325ml bottle. Amongst the myriad of other ingredients, from ginseng to vitamin B12, the most common is Taurine. Taurine is one of the most abundant amino acids in the body and is traditionally derived from animal protein (it was first isolated in cattle 40 years ago and is the etymological reason behind the name Red Bull) but can be manufactured synthetically. Taurine acts as a metabolic transmitter, has a detoxifying effect and strengthens cardiac contractility. In 1980 Japanese research indicated that Taurine could be beneficial to cardiovascular functioning. Taurine can be found in a number of the leading energy drinks including Red Bull, Lipovitan and Red Devil. Other common ingredients include vitamins, particularly riboflavin, niacin and B6, and astonishingly vivid colourants.
Who drinks it?
An increasingly diverse cross section of the population is using energy drinks on a regular basis. Product endorsement plays a large part in the use of energy drinks by professional athletes and sports people, and this in turn has a knock on effect on the millions of amateur sportsmen and women in the country. The caffeine hit provided by the drinks means that they are favoured by anyone who needs to stay alert, into this category we can add long distance drivers, salesmen and those students who prefer to leave work until the last minute. The major category though and certainly the reason behind the impressive sales figures of Red Bull in particular are clubbers. The simple cocktail of Vodka Red Bull has become a mainstay of many a twenty something after a big night on the town. For those who abstain from illegal drugs the combination of alcohol and alertness-inducing stimulant is irresistible for a night on the town, and anecdotal evidence points towards this initially British phenomenon spreading, particularly in the US.
A variety of urban myths have grown up around the new energy drinks, the Red Bull website alone contains four pages on myths surrounding the drinks refuting any suggestion that it has ever been banned, or is addictive or even that it is manufactured from bull's testicles! The Red Bull site mentions that energy drinks are a very recent development and, as such, have been subject to in depth scrutiny from agencies like the FDA in the US. This in turn has led to some alarmist headlines and stories in the less salubrious sections of the world's press but all the sites are at pains to point out that there products are no more dangerous than expresso coffee and should be approached in the same way, ie. don't drink too much.
Industry forecasts suggest that by 2002 the energy drinks segment will have reached over 100 million litres in the UK alone and this points to significant profits for the market leading companies. As the market has matured industry standard can sizes have become fairly consistent at 250ml, whilst prices range between 90p - £1.20. In comparison with standard soft drinks, 330ml for 50p the energy drinks market is hugely lucrative. The concept is now as firmly entrenched in the UK as in the other leading energy drinks consuming countries world-wide and with the dual onslaught of sports endorsements and advertising that effectively targets a youth market there seems no reason why the market for energy drinks shouldn't reach the peaks predicted for it.
Energy drinks can make a valid contribution to the performance of sportspeople at the very highest level but no more of a contribution than a combination of water, fruit juice, sugar and salt. For amateur sportspeople the difference in recovery and performance is negligible. The success of energy drinks, as with all soft drinks, is very much a matter of marketing and image. The portrayal of products like Red Bull in television and offline media have made them a valid alternative to alcohol and the development of a whole subset of alcoholic cocktails based on energy drinks has strengthened their perception amongst the key young adult market. If the marketeers and public relations experts at these companies can ensure that the myths attached to their products don't spiral then there is no reason why the market for energy drinks shouldn't grow and grow.