Sales of natural energy drinks have shot up like a Gen-Xer's blood sugar after drinking a Red Bull. In 2005 and 2006, the strongest growth in the beverage industry was among energy drinks, according to Beverage Digest. And natural versions have followed suit, with sales increasing among most brands, according to Schaumburg, Ill.-based market research firm SPINS.

"The [American] energy drink market is a $3.4 billion business right now and is still growing at a hefty rate, catching up to European sales," says Raymond Jolicoeur, co-founder of GURU, an all-natural energy drink. "Combine that with the fact that more people are stepping over to natural and organic product, and the crossroads of the two is definitely an exciting place to be."

A jolt in the market
In 1962, the Japanese pharmaceutical company Taisho created Lipovitan D to help employees work longer hours. In 1985, Jolt, the first "caffeine-enhanced" soft drink, powered all-nighters on campuses across America. But it wasn't until Austria's Red Bull crossed the Atlantic and launched into the North American market like an extreme athlete screaming off a ski jump that Americans began to develop a powerful thirst for energy drinks. Today, new drinks are jumping into the market at a frantic pace. Five hundred new products hit the market last year worldwide, with names like WhoopAss, Cocaine, Pimpjuice, Amp and No Fear. There are energy drinks formulated especially for women. There's even one called Kabbalah, made from "energized" water from the Los Angeles-based Kabbalah Center.

And recently, natural alternatives to these drinks have begun to catch on. "In general, the energy drink market has targeted males 18 to 34. They don't identify themselves with the ingredients on the can, but with the image the can portrays," says a brand manager for Hansen's Rumba Energy Juice. "But people are beginning to pay more attention to what's actually in the can."

Juiced over natural ingredients
"The top two ingredients in most conventional energy drinks are sugar and caffeine," says Tara Gidus, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. Caffeine acts as a stimulant, bringing a temporary rush of alertness, while it blocks the effects of adenosine, a brain chemical involved in sleep.

Natural drinks get their kick from botanical-based additives instead of sugar and caffeine. "The ingredients that pep up natural energy drinks are deemed 'natural' because they're from a plant source," says Lona Sandon, also a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the ADA. "But most drugs on the market are also from plant sources. The 'natural' ones are just not as concentrated." Says Mark Blumenthal, executive director of the American Botanical Council: "Really, everything's a chemical. You take a head of lettuce and there are phyto-chemicals in there, so it's relative. It comes down to what the consumer wants at the end of the day."

Little consensus is available regarding the effects of many of the herbal components in natural energy drinks. ADA spokeswoman Dawn Jackson Blatner, a registered dietitian at the Northwestern Memorial Wellness Institute in Chicago, says, "Our science on herbal properties is in its infancy." Proponents of herbal remedies point to anecdotal evidence trailing back, in some cases, more than 1,000 years.

The natural zing
Here are some common ingredients in natural energy drinks and what experts have to say about their efficacy:

Guarana. This stimulant comes from the seed of an Amazonian shrub. Its seed contains between 3.6 percent and 5.8 percent caffeine, compared with the 1.2 percent found in a coffee bean, Blatner says.

"People are beginning to pay more attention to what's actually in the can."

Taurine. "It's similar to caffeine in that it gives you that awake feeling, but I don't believe there's a ton of scientific evidence [proving its effectiveness]," Blumenthal says.

Carnitine. This amino acid has been touted in many "fat-burning" drinks. It plays a role in fatty acid metabolism, but research has yet to support that it increases the body's ability to burn fat, Sandon says.

Creatine. This has been shown to help supply energy for muscle contractions. "It's one of the real shining lights of the industry," Blumenthal says. "Its benefits can't be denied. However, creatine starts to degrade once it hits water, so I imagine that would be problematic in an energy drink." All of the studies on this ingredient have been done on its dried powder form, he says.

Panax ginseng. This root, popular in Eastern medicine, is thought to increase mental capacity, among other things. "There's limited data showing that ginseng might improve reaction time among middle-aged people," Blatner says.

Ginkgo biloba. The seeds of a ginkgo biloba tree are thought to enhance memory. "The research is 50-50 on this," Sandon says. "For every study that says it works, there's another one that says it doesn't." Yerba mat?. Made from the leaves of a South American holly plant, the tea from this herb contains about half the caffeine of coffee, Blatner says.

Kombucha. A culture that contains a symbiosis of yeast and bacteria is fermented with tea, which, Blatner says, provides the caffeine that might give it an energy boost.

Natural pack leaders
The two top-selling natural energy drinks during the 52 weeks ending in February, according to SPINS, were both kombuchas: GT's Kombucha, made by Millennium Products, and Kombucha Wonder Drink. G.T. Dave founded Millennium Products as a teenager 10 years ago after his mother was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer and recovered after adhering to a regimen that included kombucha. Dave hand-delivered his first batches to health food stores. Today, his company offers a dozen organic, raw varieties of kombucha. Last year people bought nearly $26 million worth.

"Explaining the science behind kombucha is like explaining the science behind broccoli," he says. "It's hard to identify what exactly makes it healthy—there's so many ingredients." Instead, he points to his customers. "We've done no advertising, no promotions," he says. "It's total word of mouth. People drink it, they feel great, they share it."

A lotta maté
"The drink of the gods," yerba mat? has been consumed for hundreds of years in South America—in some countries hot, in others cold—much as coffee has in the United States. It has also been the base of herbal medicines. Guayaki Yerba Mat?, which has been selling bottles of the drink since 1996, recently introduced a new line of Organic Yerba Mat? Fusion energy drinks: Pure Endurance, Pure Passion and Pure Mind.

"Guayaki differs from other energy drinks because we follow a 'whole plant-whole health' approach," says co-founder David Karr. "This is not just something cooked up in a lab. It's the 196 compounds in yerba mat? infused with juices and herbs that work together to bring you a smoother, more balanced, elevated feeling without the terrible crashes that are associated with other energy drinks." The "crashes" are avoided, he says, because the caffeine is balanced by yerba mat?'s other ingredients: a stimulant called theophylline (the euphoriant in chocolate), and pantothenic acid and magnesium, both of which are thought to ease anxiety.

Shara Rutberg is a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer.

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Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 6/p.40-44