How CHILLING OUT is HEATING UP

Let’s face it.

There’s so much rip-snortin’ tooth-grindin’, booty-shakin’, pavement-scrapin’ energy out there that it’s easy to mistake it for the only function that works.

There’s caffeine in everything from water to vodka. Yerba mate and guarana are standard ingredients in everything from banana smoothies to beer.

Duuu-uude. Calm down. It’s time to chill. At least, for beverages, it is.

The calm side of functionality isn’t new: arguably, whiskey and wine, with their depressive effects, were in fact the first functional beverages, predating even (gasp!) Gatorade. Moving into the non-alcoholic realm, it’s interesting to note that there were entries in the chill-out beverage space as early on as 1998, just when the Red Bull wave was starting to wash over the West Coast. In fact, both SoBe (Zen Blend, with ginseng and schizandra berries) and – get this – a pre-Monster Hansen’s (with d-stress, featuring kava-kava and St. John’s Wort) – were pushing calm as a function at the same time that just a few skiers had begun fueling up between runs with the energy drinks.

But since that time, there hasn’t been a strong push in the functional beverage set toward the chill-out beverage. Sure, there’s been the occasional attempt to market behind calm, and vitaminwater b-relaxed has had a moderate level of success commensurate with the rest of the brand, but there’s always been something that drags down the buzz around slowing down.

Still, it appears we’re on the cusp of a new age of mellow.

First, consumer health trends point to it: stress and tension – and headaches – are the largest drivers of over-the-counter pharmaceutical sales. Anxiety and insomnia are on the rise. And there’s a growing emphasis on “mood foods” these days, especially as tension ratchets up in everyday life.

“There’s certainly a great deal on the growth of stress and actual depression,” said Steve Walton, whose firm, Health Focus International, monitors consumer attitudes. “The thing with stress is that people are concerned about it on a global level, and they are also affected by it on a personal level. Something like cancer, there’s a lot of global concern and there’s less personal involvement. With stress, it’s high on both sides of the coin, and it is growing.”

Meanwhile, the good-lifers and Yoga Moms are starting to get in the mood for some relaxation – and it’s not such a big step from much of the New Age aspect of the natural foods movement, according to industry observers.

“We’ve been looking at mood beverages from a broader standpoint,” said Kara Nielsen, who monitors trends for the Center for Culinary Development, a food industry consulting service. “It’s tied to the broadest strokes of the marketplace: the natural foods movement, the quest for a high-quality life. We’re having this flip. Do you need more energy, or do you need something to help put you in balance? There are people who are catching on to the benefit of relaxing.”

Nielsen’s agency watches culinary trends, and on a scale of 5, it ranks “mood foods” at 3 – creeping into the mainstream.

“There are enough of these drinks out there so there’s consumer recognition,” she says.

And product development trends point to calm as an exploitable opportunity for the right beverage, as well: a steady stream of chemical and herbal products and blends, from Tryptophan to L-theanine, are entering the market, some of which have solid science behind them. This year, a pair of ingredient companies, Kerry Nutritionals and Fortitech, have been touting their relaxation and mood-settling ingredient blends – a sure indicator of their belief in the mainstream appeal of calming or mood-settling products.

While cardio and bone health are at the top of any level of desired functionality, “calm comes immediately after that,” said Ram Chaudhari, Chief Scientific Officer at Fortitech, which recently issued a white paper on mood-enhancement. “Once you don’t have good sleep or calm, you run into all the obesity kind of issues – blood pressure, diabetes. This is what you get from not keeping your mood right.”

Additionally, calming drinks and foods have proven successful in other countries, particularly Japan, where chocolates enhanced with Gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) have become a major cultural phenomenon, one that has spread from busy housewives to overstressed business executives. “This idea of being able to enjoy a coffee or a chocolate – something that’s enjoyable and calming to boot – that’s something they want to believe in even more than energy,” said Brian Morgan, a research analyst with Euromonitor International. “The idea of a quick beverage or chocolate that can relax you is very popular thus far.”

Nevertheless, it’s going to take a long time to get that chilled-out vibe to the masses. It’s rare that beverage trends translate directly from Japan to the U.S., where the idea of functionality tends to revolve around delivering an immediate energy boost or a long-term health benefit. There are a varied number of ingredients and additives that can induce the calming effect, and a dominant one has yet to emerge. Meanwhile, despite what appears to be a solid level of demand for a product that could help consumers de-stress, no one has yet figured out the right package or sales pitch.“There’s obviously something there,” said Function Drinks CEO Alex Hughes. “But it’s not where we wanted to take our product line. Life is too fast-paced.”

Maybe, but that might be the argument for taking a little time out. And recently, a few products have begun to creep into the discussion that address that area directly: nascent juice company M13 has a calm/detox formula with schizandra berry extract and chrysanthemum flowers, as well as standard functional brain helpers like ginseng and ginkgo. Blue Cow (take that, Red Bull!) Relaxation Drink is even intended to “reduce the negative effect of caffeine,” reduce stress and ease nervousness. R&R is a new drink that features valerian and Tryptophan, that post-Thanksgiving sleep inducer. Some, like Dreamerz, are more directly addressing sleep, that ultimate state of relaxation, via melatonin. Others encourage tranquility through valerian root or kava-kava.

But there is a pair of ingredients becoming more popular in the market that may have the potential to lift calm to the next level: L-theanine and GABA. Popular in other cultures and headed for mainstream uses in the U.S., if either of these amino acids become well known, there’s a distinct possibility that the snoozer might soon stop being the loser.

Thinking about L-theanine

As if green tea, with its purported fat burning and antioxidant properties, didn’t have enough going for it functionally these days, say hello to L-theanine. The amino acid is believed to have the dual effect of bringing on a feeling of calmness within users, but also allowing them to focus on the task at hand – truly a “killer app” in the task-oriented U.S.

Even Hughes, whose Function Drinks are intentionally geared away from calm, admits “L-theanine has awesome science behind it.”

There’s also a lot of money riding behind L-theanine these days. In 2007, the FDA affirmed an assertion by the company Taiyo International that its L-theanine product, Suntheanine, is Generally Accepted as Safe (GRAS). Since then, the company has moved to make deals with a number of food and beverage companies. The product is already available in b-relaxed and Blue Cow. In the not too distant future it’s easy to predict that manufacturers will start noting the presence of L-theanine in their own products, in much the way that tea makers rushed to promote their levels of EGCG after Coke’s Enviga used the “fat burning” amino acid, present in many teas, as the basis for its marketing pitch.

L-theanine’s properties have led it to be used in many different ways. PepsiCo has combined it with Yerba Mate – a stimulant – in “Enlighten,” part of its latest iteration of SoBe Life Water.

Others see the so-called “tea effect” as the key to drawing the line between a calming beverage and one that puts consumers right to sleep. When Bill Dolan and Mario Glover were developing R&R, which uses Tryptophan, among other things, to provide instant relaxation, they also turned to green tea – and L-theanine – to help provide mental sharpness.

“If you think about it, a lot of people already go to alcohol because it creates instant relaxation, but it creates kind of a mushy mind,” Dolan said. “With us, you get a change in attitude, but you become mentally sharper over the next few
hours.”

Gabbing about GABA

GABA is an amino acid that is already a key part of brain function, as it is considered by clinicians to be the brain’s major inhibitory neurotransmitter – that is, it plays the role of guide in the brain, helping to direct the flow of various ions across neural synapses. Drugs or substances that increase the amount of GABA in the brain have been known to have relaxing effects.

GABA has been used in supplements in the U.S. already, but not for relaxation purposes. As an amino acid, it’s been popular among bodybuilders for several years as part of a series of supplements that are believed to combine to enhance strength and muscle mass. That kind of functionality could hurt GABA’s acceptance, according to Morgan.

“If it’s pretty popular in the sports nutrition industry, that might have a bit of a negative connotation,” he said. Another issue is that studies have not yet concluded that ingested GABA is a bioavailable compound. In other words, while there is proof that there are substances that can make consumers feel better by stimulating an increase in the body’s manufactured GABA, that doesn’t necessarily mean that GABA, when taken as a supplement, is going to provide the same effect.

Physical effects aside, GABA has definitely caused a financial effect in Japan, where its status as a calm inducing functional product means that, as an ingredient, it has crossed over from chocolate into a number of beverages, including the Coca-Cola Co.’s blockbuster Georgia Coffee drink.

Datamonitor’s Productscan indicates that at least 15 new GABA-enhanced beverage products have come onto the market in Japan since last January. But the big debut in the U.S. isn’t expected until next year, when Jones Soda rolls out its own GABA drink. The company bought the U.S. rights to Pharma GABA, a naturally-produced form of GABA manufactured by the Japanese company Pharma Foods International. The company has a shell web site set up for its GABA initiative, but it’s still tinkering with the product, according to Jones Soda executives.

GABA’s potential may lie in other consumer packaged good sectors, of course, and Jones could still get beaten to the punch, especially with the first drinks delayed almost a year from what was supposed to be a January 2008 introduction. But the company has made it clear it believes in the compound’s potential, and if its phenomenal growth in Japan finds a similar cultural hook in the U.S., there could be plenty of opportunities for food and beverage to provide relaxation across a variety of delivery media.A Function in the Crowd?

But despite the possibility that one of these two products might be the “killer nap app,” experts agree that consumers will need a lot of education before calming beverages become a part of the everyday, off the shelf pickup.

Given the equal footing of so many calm-inducing ingredients (SEE SIDEBAR), as well as the Pharmacopeia of prescription and non-prescription sleep aids and anti-anxiety medications on the market, there’s a lot of different information that exists when it comes to calm. Beyond that, functional beverages overall remain a fairly new concept in the U.S. Those products that have marketed calm have done it as part of an array, a la vitaminwater or Life Water.

“If you have one message on one ingredient, that could be the ticket,” CCD’s Nielsen said. In a functional array, “we’re inundated with so many different messages, it’s hard to understand the differences between the products or the ingredients. There needs to be some education with the product launch for consumers to get it.”

Nevertheless, an initial lack of information about a “mystery ingredient” hasn’t stood in the way of energy drinks, Morgan notes. “Something like Taurine was unknown 20 years ago as well,” he said. “I don’t see it happening soon for calming ingredients, but it could be on the horizon.”

Not if you ask John Bello, however. The SoBe founder said that calm and relaxation just aren’t the kind of need states that are addressed by beverages. Calm runs counter to the character of American beverage culture, says the industry veteran.

“People have come to me repeatedly about doing something with relaxation and calm,” Bello says. “I think it’s going down the wrong road. Refreshment, it’s always about the caffeine. Living life to the fullest, every golden minute, all those things.”

When Bello was the “Lizard King” at SoBe, before selling out to PepsiCo, his brands emphasized energy, he said. SoBe did have its Zen Blend, but he said the company tried to angle it toward refreshment rather than calm. And obviously, Hansen’s didn’t become a stock market monster until it developed Monster Energy.

“What drives the core of the category is refreshment,” Bello adds. “And refreshment is energy-producing. All the rest of it is trimming to make it sound better than it is.”

Possibly, but SoBe itself is the barest shell of what it once was. A line of elixirs and energy drinks has basically been reduced to a set of five functional waters, one of which calls itself “Calm” and another of which uses L-theanine. Neither is the functional giant that energy has become. But if you ask Nielsen, there’s plenty of space left on the functional beverage shelf, and something with an immediate calming effect has a strong group ready to pick it up.

After all, she says, it’s not as if energy drinks are being bought by everyone, either.

“If you look at it from a mainstream point of view, the trucker probably isn’t going to buy the relaxation drink,” she said. “Maybe it’s a niche – I think it’s going to depend on how it’s marketed. I don’t think it’s going to be the next Red Bull – but Red Bull isn’t for everybody, and it’s still a truly successful brand.”

Got it, Haters? Just chill.The Elements of Cool

If chill-out beverages are ever to become a major part of the functional arsenal, there’s going to have to be a major shakeout in the ingredient category, according to industry observers. That’s because there are so many products directly or tangentially linked to the calming effect – to a varying degree of efficacy – that it’s hard to establish a solid knowledge base among consumers with regard to the best products.

Nevertheless, there are a few that have come to prominence and will likely be employed in various combinations until a winner shakes out:

St. John’s Wort-This botanical ingredient has long been an alternative to prescription antidepressant medications.

GABA-This amino acid is considered a key to allowing calming dopamine flow in the brain.

L-theanine-Another amino acid often found in green tea, it is believed to reduce stress and allow improved concentration (the so-called “tea effect.”)

Omega-3 Fatty Acids-Used by the brain to help form healthy nerve cells, they can also reinforce those parts of the brain that manufacture serotonin, which is closely linked to mood.

Tryptophan-The Thanksgiving time bomb, Tryptophan is another amino acid that can raise serotonin levels.

Kava-This botanical ingredient has been used to combat anxiety disorders and produce a sense of calm.

L-carnitine-While often used as a sports or weight-loss product, this amino acid is believed to also provide mental energy and battle fatigue.