It’s too early to tell, but Natural Products Expo West 2017 may be remembered as the year of ashwagandha’s arrival.
Valued for centuries by herbalists as a restorative treatment in Ayurvedic medicine, the adaptogenic herb has of late become a prominent ingredient in ready-to-drink functional beverage products. At Expo West, its presence stretched across the spectrum of categories, ranging from a new line of functional organic juices from Uncle Matt’s to just-launched teas from Sherpa Power and Blue Buddha to Health Ade’s new reishi mushroom and chocolate-flavored kombucha.
Yet the question remains: could it be simply the hot ingredient of the moment, or could ashwagandha’s rising profile herald a greater future for adaptogenic fruits and herbs — such as reishi, tulsi (also known as holy basil), ginseng, eleuthero and schizandra — as a fully developed beverage category?
Answering that question requires an understanding of what an adaptogen is and what it is not. Though sometimes grouped together with other traditional herbal remedies, adaptogens are defined by specific properties and biological functions.
The term itselfwas coined by Russian pharmacologist Dr. N.V. Lazarev in 1947, and later explored further by scientists as a way to help Soviet cosmonauts adjust to conditions in space during the height of the U.S.S.R.’s rocket program in the 1960s. Many of the ingredients themselves have roots in Asian countries that were under the U.S.S.R.’s control, but they have been studied in the West for years as well.
“It really is a term for a food or ingredient that we take into our body that helps our bodies adapt to and mitigate the stress response and increases endurance,” said Caroline MacDougall, CEO of Teeccino and a former tea designer at Celestial Seasonings.
Teeccino showcased a new line of nitro-infused teas at Expo West made with adaptogens like ashwagandha and tulsi.
“You have to meet the three thresholds: the first is that it helps you with the stress response, the second is it increases endurance and third is you can take it all the time because it normalizes the functions of your organs and the systems of the body,” MacDougall said.
The normalizing effect of adaptogens is particularly relevant, as it negates most concerns over what kind of consumers should use them and how much they should take.
“If you have an issue with something like blood pressure, for instance, you can use [adaptogens] whether it’s high or low,” MacDougall explained.
However – and this may have held the category back for the short term — because adaptogens lack a functional benefit with immediate effect, the experience is different from what consumers may have come to expect from energy drinks and other beverages that offer an instant physiological response.
“A characteristic of adaptogens is that they are slow-acting, meaning that they are not supposed to affect us that day,” said William Siff, founder and chief herbalist at Goldthread, a Massachusetts-based brand reliant on adaptogens. “It’s not caffeine, but over time they help us to stop wasting energy. They help us maximize efficiency for how we produce and utilize energy.”
As such, beverage brands working in the space are faced with the challenge of educating consumers as to the more subtle, long-term benefits of adaptogenic ingredients that many are seeing for the first time.
“[The effects] are not dramatic, necessarily,” said Siff. Goldthread rolled out a nine-SKU line of herbal tonics at Expo West, with each variety offering a blend of herbs, roots and spices — some adaptogenic and some not — tied to a specific function or mood. Currently available at Whole Foods, the brand is planning to launch on the West Coast in April.
Another brand, REBBL, has made adaptogens and “super herbs” the core identity of its rapidly growing brand platform, integrating ingredients like reishi mushroom, ashwagandha, ginseng and eleuthero into its line of coconut milk-based elixirs and protein drinks. At Expo West, the company showcased a new addition to its core line, Turmeric Lemon Tart, as well as a new cold-brew coffee variety made with reishi.
“The truth is that these are difficult stories to explain,” REBBL co-founder Palo Hawken told BevNET at Expo West. “It takes minutes to give a deep story on adaptogens. We sort of realize what the limit of what we can do on the pack is. What we do is we offer just enough of the intrigue for people to feel what the possibility is.”
So how do you do it?
“Frankly, we are allowing the media to [communicate the message of adaptogens to consumers] as much as anything,” said MacDougall. “The buzz that always happens of word in mouth within the health and natural foods industry is what reaches our consumers. They read about adaptogens and the benefits and they get this concept that ‘I may not be getting that quick energy jolt, but I’m gonna work on my systems, and thus I’m going to work in a holistic way to feed my body rather than stress my body.’”
Siff said that customers who buy into the concept of making a long-term investment in health are the type of consumers Goldthread values most.
“That’s the kind of person that’s going to be a real loyal customer and drink the product regularly and have a lifestyle that supports the inclusion of this product into their life, as opposed to someone who’s got false expectations.”
The Deciding Factor
In an effort to build consumer awareness, both Teeccino and REBBL either currently feature or plan to display the amount in milligrams of adaptogens in each of its products. But both MacDougall and Hawken acknowledged that if consumers don’t love the taste, all other concerns regarding beverage functionality or ingredient base become irrelevant.
Taste will likely be a deciding factor in the success or failure of adaptogen-based beverages outside of the natural channel. REBBL finished 2016 as the best-selling functional drink sold in natural grocery stores in the U.S., its founders point out.
Despite the proliferation of adaptogen-powered drinks at Expo West, the range of benefits and versatile usability of such ingredients — either as a functional enhancement to a beverage or as the central focus — does not for the moment provide a clear and consistent runway for all types of brands, or consumers, to approach them as defined beverage category. Yet the potential is there.
“It takes a lot of people and it takes a lot of brands bringing to the attention of the consumers who are looking for a healthy product that this is something they should think about,” MacDougall said. “You might read about ashwagandha helping to promote sleep in one article and then in another you might read that it works to increase libido, both of which are true. So you might read about those because you have separate interests. [Consumers] come to it from all different directions.“