If you’ve ever reached for an energy drink to give you that extra jolt you need to make it through a busy day, you’re certainly not alone. Energy drinks are a massive market category: in the US alone, energy drink sales in 2018 totaled nearly $11 billion (a growth rate of 7% over the previous period). Furthermore, the global market research firm Mintel predicts that by 2021, energy drink sales in the US will reach a projected $19.2 billion.
However, despite this impressive commercial momentum, energy drinks are not immune to the trends and demands that are reshaping the food and beverage industry overall. Increasingly, clean label-oriented consumers are looking for products that contain less sugar and that are made with natural ingredients, and they are less willing to make an exception for energy drinks, which have traditionally relied on plenty of sugar and synthetic caffeine to give consumers the buzz that they crave. As a result, a growing number of energy drink manufacturers—legacy brands and startups alike—are working to reformulate their products to deliver the same energy-boosting functionality in a way that better meets today’s consumer expectations around health and wellness.
Moving Away from Sucrose
To make their energy drinks more appealing to health-conscious consumers, many manufacturers are moving away from sucrose—the standard type of sugar used in most energy drinks—and instead are experimenting with other forms of sugar that are more likely to be perceived as healthy. For example, a malted barley extract known as MaltRite is being marketed by its producer, Malt Products Corp., as a more functional sweetener for use in energy and sports recovery drinks. What sets MaltRite apart from sucrose is its molecular structure. While sucrose is composed of a fructose and glucose molecule, MaltRite’s sugar is primarily maltose, which is made up of two glucose molecules. According to the company, the body is able to utilize glucose far more functionally, while fructose is perceived as a toxin by the body and is consequently sent directly to the liver.
Derived from sugar beets, palatinose is another variety of sugar that purports to have a more beneficial chemical structure. Like sucrose, palatinose contains a fructose and a glucose molecule, but it has a lower glycemic index than sucrose due to its different molecular bond structure. As a result, palatinose is ingested more slowly, thus improving the body’s metabolism and prompting it to burn more fat while producing less insulin. At present, palatinose is used in more than 40 products in the US, including a number of energy and sports-related drinks.
When it comes to energy drinks, another area of concern for health-oriented consumers is the use of synthetic caffeine. Generated from urea and other chemical sources, synthetic caffeine is a longtime staple of energy drinks, but manufacturers are hoping that the use of caffeine from natural sources will help to lure consumers with the promise of a more benign energy boost.
For example, a new line of energy drinks from Mati Healthy Energy use guayusa to give consumers a lift. A type of tea brewed from the leaves of a tree found in the Amazon, guayusa contains caffeine as well as a chemical called theobromine, which acts as a kind of time release for the caffeine. According to the company, the result is that consumers can benefit from a steady and consistent delivery of energy without any sudden spikes or crashes.
A Different Kind of Energy
The shift toward healthier beverages is also prompting many manufacturers to re-examine the kind of functionality that their energy drinks are delivering. Today, consumers don’t just want to boost their energy levels, they want to increase their overall sense of wellness and optimized function. In other words, there’s a movement away from “harder, faster, stronger” and towards an experience that is more holistic and centered.
With a line of ready-to-drink matcha tea products, Brooklyn-based manufacturer MatchaBar is just one example of the growing number of companies experimenting with beverages that deliver this kind of “better energy.” Matcha contains the slow-release amino acid known as L-theanine, which acts as a natural calming agent and can offer consumers a more fine-tuned energy experience.
What Consumers Need to Know
While all of these reformulations may sound promising, it’s important for consumers of energy drinks to be aware that there are limits to how much these beverages have actually changed. Consumers need to remember that better-for-you claims like “healthy” and “natural” are not formally defined by the FDA or any other regulatory body, so a product that purports to be a healthy source of energy may not quite deliver what it promises. In addition, when it comes to ingredients like caffeine, the difference between synthetic and natural versions may not be as important as manufacturers claim: according to a 2018 study published in Clinical Pharmacology in Drug Development, synthetic and natural caffeine produced virtually the same responses in study subjects.
Therefore, perhaps the best advice for consumers is to remember that energy drinks should be consumed as part of an overall balanced diet and that it’s important to stick within the recommended daily limits for ingredients such as caffeine and added sugar, regardless of what type of source they come from.