the canned and bottled beverage industry has seen a massive proliferation of caffeinated beverages, particularly the so-called Energy Drink (NRG), a drink that claims to provide mental acuity in addition to physical energy. These drinks range from relatively benign canned coffees like the “Starbucks’ doubleshot” to ultra-chemical-added drinks like “Red Bull.” Interestingly in both cases, to find the origins of these beverages, one has to look to Asia, particularly Japan and Thailand.
On the more (seemingly) harmless end of the caffeinated mass-produced beverage spectrum are the new canned and bottled coffee products. Starbucks was first to hit the U.S. market in the late 1990’s with their Frappuccino bottled line of drinks, named after their popular ice-drink. They followed up on the popular Frappuccino line with the new “doubleshot” canned coffee. But, these coffee drinks are just an Americanized version of the long time canned brewed coffee that has been a Japanese favorite. Canned coffee, usually credited as a Japanese innovation, has been widely available for 40 years. It first appeared on store shelves in 1969, produced by UCC, then Asahi, Sapporo, Suntory, Wonda, etc. The culture has even penetrated the U.S. with avid reviewers and fans that congregate at (www.cannedcoffee.com). From their website, “Canned coffee is more than a drink. It’s a whole fidgety, jacked-up subculture that bonds young punks, middle-aged office workers, fatigued students, and even old guys in polo shirts.” While Starbucks currently tries to open up the traditional teahouse market of Japan, its coffee culture of shops and coffee beverages; they aren’t the first to offer coffee beverages there.
And to those who ask “Where’s my Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee gone?” here is one answer… the vast majority of this specialty coffee ends up as canned in Japan. You’ll find it, infused with sugar and non-dairy creamer, in vending machines and convenience stores throughout the country. Another new canned coffee product appearing on store shelves here in the U.S. is Frappio, with extra caffeine and a patented Ashwangandha herbal extract. This company claims that drinking their product will reduce stress-related hunger for up to four hours. Also noteworthy and just getting into the U.S. canned and bottled coffee market is Coca-Cola, whose new “Blak” carbonated beverage is a fusion
of cola and coffee flavors. Whether Blak can compete or carve itself a new niche market (as a reputedly great bar mixer) remains to be seen.
In Japan, there has been a long time, long standing market for NRG drinks, called Genki Drinks. Genki Drinks, translated into English, means “healthy” or “cheerful” drinks. They are a mainstream beverage in that country, with the most popular ranging from $3 to $7 each, and generally tasting like cough syrup. It should be said that Japan’s domestic NRG drink business as well as its canned coffee business has been well established for decades, in a highly competitive market. Genki-Drinks are perhaps more potent and medicinal tasting than their Western counterparts but come in bottles roughly 1/8th the size. (They can be purchased in America only from shops specializing in Japanese products.) Back in the U.S., where bigger is always better, the gen-next NRG beverages commonly come in 20 oz. cans and are available by the multitude in 7-11s and am/pm markets across the nation.
Red Bull is the brand name of an Austrian/Thai carbonated soft drink. Red Bull has become the quintessential caffeinated energy drink in the U.S. market, spawning a host (100’s) of imitators. Red Bull is not an American or even European invention however. It hails from Thailand where its original formula is rumored to be at least twice as powerful as its Western counterpart. While vacationing in Thailand, Austrian native Dietrich Mateschitz saw that the motorcycle taxi (tuk-tuk) drivers were continuously drinking the stuff to keep energized through their never ending shifts. Knowing a good thing when he saw it, Mateschitz translated, licensed and adapted it to fit within western culture’s acceptable standards, forming Red Bull GmbH in 1984. Red Bull is offered in virtually every bar in America as a mixer, usually for Vodka and Jagermeister. It’s also in every corner convenience store and grocery store across the nation. Almost one billion of the slim 250ml cans were sold in 2000 in over 100 countries with 260 million of them sold in the U.K. In 2003, almost two billion cans were sold in over 120 countries! They’ve even offered a sugar-free version of Red Bull since 2003. Its marketing has made it completely mainstream for most demographics under 50 years old.
In addition to caffeine, Red Bull contains sugar, taurine (a synthetic non-essential amino acid naturally occurring in many plants and animals), glucuronolactone, and a host of B-complex vitamins. Red Bull’s popularity has not seen a decline even though many rumors and statements have publicly questioned the product’s safety. The following quote was picked up on the website (http://en.wikipedia.org), “In 2001, the drink was investigated by the Swedish National Food Administration after being linked to the deaths of three consumers. It has been subject to a number of other health scares regarding glucuronolactone, a precursor of taurine. Sale of Red Bull as a normal soft drink is prohibited in Denmark, Norway, and France. Due to the link with taurine, local authorities categorized Red Bull as a medicine and suggest customers ask for medical advice before drinking. Because of this, only energy drinks without taurine are sold in France.” The site goes on to say, “The official imported Canadian Red Bull is a caffeinated version of Thai Krating Daeng (Red Bull). Until late 2004, its sale was prohibited in Canada. Now a can must carry a warning label that says: ‘Caution: Contains caffeine. Not recommended for children, pregnant or breast-feeding women, caffeine sensitive persons or to be mixed with alcohol. Do not consume more than 500 ml per day.’ However, no such warning label is present on cans sold in the U.S. nor in the U.K., though people who consume the beverage in excess (more than 2-5 8 fl oz cans in a 24-hour period) have been known to express discomfort, such as nausea, stomach pains, gas, and/or sleeplessness.” Most of the above dire warnings can apply to any excessive consumption of the NRG drinks, especially when combined with alcohol, (amping up the anesthetizing factors of alcohol with caffeine). After all, they are energy drinks.
Jolt cola and Red Bull might be the original western NRG drinks, but the new breed of NRG drinks includes such players as NOS (that’s right, the car engine additive company), Rockstar, Inc., Monster Energy, Vital Pharmeceuticals, Sobe, and the perennial favorite, Coca-Cola. These new drinks contain such (claimed) nutritional supplements as: L-Carnitine, Ginseng, Cyanocobalamin, D-ribose, Guarana, Inositol, Folic Acid, Panothenic Acid, Ashwangandha, Milk Thistle, Evodiamine, Yerbe Mate, Green Tea, N-acetyl-L-tyrosine, 5-hydroxy-L-Tryptophan, cAMP, Yohimine HCL, and Vinpocetine.
With such an amount of increasingly obscure chemical compounds and herbal extracts making their way into youth-marketed beverages, one has to ask… “What the heck is this stuff and what long range effects will they have?” Without a degree in biochemistry or a crystal ball, there’s little likelihood that any of us will know those answers in the near future. It seems that the consumer will just have to trust the motives of these companies in the meantime, or buy mineral water instead.
The rapid rise in popularity and mass marketing of these NRG drinks in the U.S. can be directly linked to the mid-’90s Raver scene where “Smart Drinks” emerged. These concoctions were sometimes made on the spot and sold at ‘Rave’ parties as an energy and vitamin supplement for young, all night partygoers. The growing popularity of this new pop-culture was soon capitalized on by Hansen’s soda, which released a full line of canned smart drinks, copying rave-style graphics in 1996. In the U.K., Lucozade energy drink was at the forefront of this subculture/mainstream crossover with infamous advertising featuring a knock-off of the rock group The Prodigy’s “Fire Starter,” a multi-platinum selling techno hit. Lucozade, another ancient (and foreign) NRG drink pre-cursor was first sold in 1927 as a convalescence aid and re-branded for youth marketing in the 1980’s. Its main ingredients are Glucose and Caffeine.
With the exception of the new Tab Energy, whose target market is decidedly female with its slim pink can and clear candy-like flavors of watermelon and strawberry, all these drinks are marketed in a decidedly masculine way. Bulls, Monsters, Rockstars, Nitrous Oxide, Rush, Redline, AMP, No Fear, Pimp Juice-nothing cute or cuddly about it. (Yes, Pimp Juice-created by a company where hip-hop star Nelly is the chairman. Here is their “Manufacturer’s Brand Overview: Pimp Juice is a healthy, non-carbonated energy drink possessing a tropical berry flavor. Pimp Juice’s artificial coloring gives it a smooth neon green glow, while its 10% apple juice content adds a natural sweetness to its taste. Providing 100% of the body’s needed vitamin C, B2, B3, B5, B6, and B12, Pimp Juice works to increase the drinker’s energy supply. In addition, an 8 oz serving of pimp juice contains Taurine, a conditionally essential amino acid that aids the body in its absorption of nutrients needed for optimal mental and physical performance. Pimp Juice acquires its boost from Guarana, an all-natural tropical ingredient.” Most of the marketing of these NRG drinks would have you believe that these products are wonderful, mind-altering, legal drugs that will have you dancing on the ceiling. But not only are they selling a legal high. There is an intimated promise of social acceptance, a fantasy that these drinks will make the consumer sexually competent and desirable. None of these drinks are called “Math Genius,” after all. Alarmingly, these beverages are being consumed by an increasingly younger market, as well as teens, twenty-somethings and tired working people looking for a little pick-me up.
As the caffeinated NRG and coffee drink market heats up yet again, the prepared beverage industry seems poised for another growth spurt, albeit smaller than the ‘90s boom when this niche market first emerged into the beverage scene. But will American canned coffee become the ubiquitous, mainstream item it is in Japan? Will Red Bull continue to dominate the NRG drink market? Will Asia’s beverage culture spawn yet another domestic fast growth market? Will the users of these beverages suffer as yet unknown side effects from ingesting chemicals not closely monitored by the FDA? These are the questions that will prove important for the beverage industry in the coming months and years. In the meantime, I’ll stick to fresh brewed, caffeine-free coffee.