Historically, energy drinks have been soda spiked with caffeine—there’s never been an illusion of a health halo; jitters, wings, and all, they are what they are. But now that consumers are more health-minded, energy drink brands are leaning into wellness tropes to get a slice of this market's pie: taking away sugar, extracting caffeine from plants like green tea, and adding functional nutrition claims. (You’ve seen them: “Added vitamin C for a bolstered immune system!” “Extra electrolytes for hydration!”)
"The [energy drink] aisle was starting to feel like a sea of sameness," says Ty Haney, the founder of Outdoor Voices. She’s diving into the functional energy beverage category with her just-launched venture, Joggy, which makes plant-based energy products and supplements with CBD. No longer.
“[Wellness-minded] consumers who are stressed out and have trouble sleeping are searching for a pick-me-up, and energy drinks are a quick, convenient fix,” says Joe Vennare, founder of Fitt Insider, a newsletter, podcast, and community that breaks down the business of fitness and wellness. “Today, people are not only seeking energy-boosting products, but are demanding options that have less sugar and other functional benefits, like vitamins or electrolytes.” This “value-added” concept is what sets this generation of energy drinks apart from its predecessors, like Red Bull and Monster.
“Over the past year, we’ve definitely seen increased consumer demand for ‘better-for-you’ energy drinks,” says Laurentia Romaniuk, trends expert and principal product manager at Instacart. “It’s clear that consumers want and need that boost of energy, but they don’t necessarily want to consume copious amounts of sugar and other [artificial] ingredients that can lead to adverse side effects.”
“Today, people are not only seeking energy-boosting products, but are demanding options that have less sugar and other functional benefits, like vitamins or electrolytes.” Joe Vennare, founder of Fitt Insider
According to Romaniuk, two brands that fall within this category—Alani Nu, a zero-sugar energy drink co-founded by fitness influencer Katy Hearn in 2018, and caffeinated pre-workout beverage Celsius, which launched in 2005—are actually the number one and two top-growing beverages within the entire energy drink category on Instacart’s platform. “Based on how better-for-you energy drinks are currently trending, we can expect more brands to take notice and introduce new products in 2023 and beyond,” Romaniuk says.
A pioneer in the “wellnessified” energy drink space, Celsius’s cans pack 200 mg of caffeine sourced from guarana seeds and are infused with a proprietary blend of ginger, guarana, green tea, and seven essential vitamins that the brand claims is “formulated to work with the body and deliver fast-acting much-needed energy to help you feel focused and energized, without those nasty jitters you get from coffee.” Celsius’s recent success is evidence of this market heating up: It was acquired by beverage heavyweight PepsiCo this August for $550 million, which places its current valuation at over $7.5 billion. According to the Wall Street Journal, sales of Celsius nearly tripled in the first six months of this year compared to the prior year, growing from $93 million to $269 million.
Celsius is far from the only energy beverage that’s adding natural caffeine extracted from plants instead of the synthetic sources that have historically been used. This year, Starbucks launched its first energy drink, Starbucks Baya Energy, made with caffeine sourced from coffee fruit and added vitamin C for immune support. Also in 2022, sparkling water brand Rambler debuted its first energy beverage, Rambler Yaupon Energy, which is infused with yaupon, a caffeinated plant native to North America. There’s also Machu Picchu Energy, founded in March by Bernardo Paiva, the former global head of sales for Anheuser-Busch Inbev, which makes energy drinks with caffeine from green coffee beans. Matcha-tea-powered Somi Energy, which launched in January, has actually trademarked the accolade of “the world’s healthiest energy drink.”
“Energy beverage brands are using more health-promoting ingredients and adaptogens and not just relying on caffeine as the functional ingredient—they’re adding ingredients that help with focus, clarity, stress relief, recovery, and more." George Daines, senior global category merchant for beverages at Whole Foods
But health-wise, the claims associated with “clean” or “natural” sources of caffeine may not hold water. According to experts, caffeine is caffeine—which means that it works the same way in the body no matter where it comes from. "Synthetic caffeine and natural caffeine are the same chemical compound,” says Francesca Alfano, CDN. “The biggest difference is that, with natural sources of caffeine such as coffee or green tea, you also get the added benefits of antioxidants and other beneficial compounds that are not found in synthetic sources."
Energy drink companies have started adding functional ingredients—a catchall term that implies that they provide health benefits beyond basic nutrients and energy—to their products, too, in order to appeal to the increasingly health-conscious consumer. “Energy beverage brands are using more health-promoting ingredients and adaptogens and not just relying on caffeine as the functional ingredient—they’re adding ingredients that help with focus, clarity, stress relief, recovery, and more,” says George Daines, senior global category merchant for beverages at Whole Foods Market. “So what we are seeing [going into 2023] is the energy drink becoming a more well-rounded product that can do more than solely provide you with an energy boost."
Haney’s Joggy is a prime example. "We're still in stealth research and development mode, but I can tell you it will be 100 percent naturally-flavored and deliver a cognitive-inspired energetic boost," Haney says of the brand’s upcoming CBD-infused energy drink launch, slated for early 2023. Another is Athletic Greens, a powdered greens supplement that skyrocketed in 2022 after successfully raising $115 million (today, the company is valued at over $1.2 billion). While its classic AG1 product—which contains 75 vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients—may not look like not your typical "energy" drink, enhanced energy is one of the benefits Chris Ashendon, founder and CEO of Athletic Greens, says attracts a significant portion of their customers.
There’s also GORGIE, a green-tea-based energy beverage made with B vitamins and amino acids (founded by Michelle Cordeiro Grant, founder and former CEO of ungarment brand Lively), which will officially come to market in January. "I created GORGIE to give the energy drink category a brand and community made for and made by women, with the benefits of what women want their energy drink to do for them," says Grant. Juvee, short for Rejuvenating Energy Drink, launched in October to “boost your energy, but also lift your mood, increase your focus, and up your immunity” with ingredients like maca root, L-theanine, vitamins C and B, and taurine.
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Sports drinks—which are already classified as “functional beverages” due to their electrolyte content—are officially getting the energy treatment, too. Sports beverage company Bodyarmor debuted an energy-meets-athletic-drink, Edge, in 2020. "There's tons of overlap between that hydration and energy-boosting moment,” says Mike Fine, vice president of marketing at Bodyarmor and former energy drink brand director at Coke. “When developing Edge, we thought, how can we provide both of these key benefits to our consumers?"
Hydration drink mix brand Liquid IV entered the energy space this year, adding Energy Multiplier to its roster, as did electrolyte drink mix brand Cure Hydration, with a line of hydration-boosting powdered energy products. Prime energy drink (“made with BCAA, antioxidants, and electrolytes for muscle recovery”) was founded in January by YouTube stars KSI and Logan Paul, and sold out within minutes of launching—and it’s been close to impossible to get ahold of since. Finally, Gatorade is debuting Fast Twitch, a first-of-its-kind caffeinated spin on the signature sports drink with B vitamins and electrolytes, in February 2023.
It’s clear the caffeine aisle is the place to be. But when so many health- and performance-boosting claims are on tap, it can be hard to sniff out the jolt-worthy beverages from the snake oil. Registered dietitian Sarah Amelia Wenig, RDN, recommends reaching for energy drinks that are free from added sugar, artificial ingredients or sweeteners, and contain 100 mg of caffeine or less. And of course, she recommends keeping in mind that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. ✙
Opening Photo Credit: Stocksy/nomad studio, Hero Photo Credit: Stocksy/SKC
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