Functional beverages need more guidance from the ABA

Recently, the American Beverage Association (ABA) said that it is considering a new guideline that will “recommend” that beverage manufacturers put caffeine content on the side of all soft drinks. It is being heralded as a proactive move for the industry, but is it enough?  After all, the ABA is supposed to be the “national voice” for the non-alcoholic beverage industry.

In my opinion, this move is a bit late and not enough.  The industry still looks like the bad guy due to the mistakes of a few small beverage marketers who acted irresponsibly with their products (e.g. certain energy drinks who shall remain nameless).  If the ABA is going to be the voice of the industry, then it has to be ahead of the curve.  Right now, these proactive moves seem more like last minute attempts to avoid crisis.   Caffeine consumption and obesity are great examples — both ran wild in the media before any action was taken.

Now I’m not going to pretend to understand how a lobbyist organization works, but I believe that the industry needs to step up and control its own destiny, whether it’s under the ABA or not.   The current era of functional beverages is a profitable one for the industry, but it also has way more risk than the old days of a refreshment focused industry. The beverage industry certainly doesn’t want to see a cataclysmic end to this.

I’m not sure what the ultimate answer to this is, but there are a couple of things which need to be addressed sooner rather than later, specifically:

  • Further guidelines on ingredients and their levels.  Consumers (and even some brand marketers) don’t know what ingredients like taurine actually are.  Yes, this is a bit of a pipe dream, but a list of “approved ingredients and levels” for functional drinks (kind of like an enhanced version of “GRAS”, but just for beverages) would help separate the industry from beverage marketers who get themselves into trouble (a la Spike Shooter) for using new ingredients or high doses.  
  • Consumption guidelines.  Caffeine and sugar intake guidelines would be a great place to start.  Most consumers have no idea what the danger points are — and it’s a great opportunity for the industry to lead the way.
  • Warning label consistency.   Warning statements on the side of functional beverages seem to be more about marketing the credibility of the drink’s claims rather than actually advising the consumer.   Determining a set of rules — or maybe even a rating system — would help consumers select the right drink.