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5 energy drinks chasing Red Bull's success

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Remember when caffeine came only in coffee? Red Bull is getting a run for its $3 billion in money from upstart energy beverage companies. Here are my top 5 contenders.

Our drink choices used to boil down to water, juice, milk, coffee, soda and booze.

That’s so 20th century.

Today, thanks to advances in nutrition science along with innovative product developers, we have an entire galaxy of liquid entertainment options. Most of these have their DNA in those six choices I mentioned above.

We now have bottled waters and vitamin waters; juices from the fruits of trees the world over, milks with functional nutrients and milk alternatives from soy to almonds to coconuts; fair trade coffees and drinks that have all the caffeine but none of the taste of coffee; and many of them have the carbonated DNA of cola drinks.

Today, I’m going to talk just about the energy drink sector. It is pretty much owned by Red Bull, which makes $3 billion a year on its tiny, 8.3 oz cans which established the category. Red Bull is so successful that it pulled its energy shots product from the market because it was pulling in only $30 million. Sheesh!

Coffee is alive and well. There are lots of taste options, plus you can feel even better about your buy with Certified Fair Trade coffee. But it’s a bitter drink. (Plus, who really wants a hot drink in summertime?) Taste receptors in people tend to like sweet drinks when we’re young, and then some time roughly in our 30s, a shift takes place and we prefer bitter tastes.

Drink companies have responded to this, whether consciously or not, and have developed caffeine-laced soft drinks that are decidedly on the sweet side of the equation.

If you want to know whether you’re still young or not, try some Red Bull. If you like it, add some vodka to it—you’re still young. If you think it tastes like cough syrup, welcome to adulthood—the nearest Starbucks is right around the corner.

While caffeine is the staple ingredient in these energy drinks, other words on the ingredients panel might include guarana—nothing more than a natural caffeine source (actually, coffee beans are natural, too, so let’s just call it an alternative caffeine source)—amino acids, B vitamins and citicoline, which is a B-like vitamin that increases dopamine receptors and helps get the synapses popping in your noggin.

Here are my favorite energy drink start-ups giving Red Bull a run for its money.

  1. Nawgan
    My favorite in this sector is a start-up company out of St. Louis that puts out a drink called Nawgan. It’s got the obligatory caffeine along with citicoline. Even the decaf version adds a spark, so I believe there truly is something to the citicoline, the branded ingredient of which is called Cognizin and is sourced from Kyowa Hakko.

    Studies at first showed 500 mg worked better than 2,000 mg, and the latest show 250 mg works, which is how much is in the drink. It’s always refreshing when a company puts efficacious doses of functional ingredients into products, which is not hardly always the case outside the supplements world (and even there...).

    Nawgan is now heading into the Fort Lauderdale market. Product developer Rob Paul, PhD in neuropsychology, says when formulating the taste profile, if his kids liked it, he knew he didn’t have it right. That’s because the target audience is office slobs like yours truly. Mild flavor, mild carbonation, functional boost.
     
  2. Brain TonIQ
    Another entrant is Boulder, Colorado’s Brain TonIQ. It’s got choline in it, as well as adaptogenic herbs Eleuthero and rhodiola, as well as DMAE, which some studies show an increase in alertness and better mood. It’s unclear if there’s enough to match the study, but I drank a can last night before I went home, and as soon as I walked in the front door my wife told me, “You look like you’re in a good mood.” Really, she did!
     
  3. Ex Pure Energy
    Ex Pure Energy
    has caffeine from guarana, the obligatory stable of Bs, plus the sexiness of kombucha, which of course gained sway because the fermented drink gave rise to alcohol content; the booze factor was discovered by authorities and now kombucha has no alcohol in it, which makes me think its popularity won’t last much longer. Still, it has a mild flavor, with fewer calories and sugar than most.
     
  4. Sambazon Energy
    The Sambazon boys have repurposed their acai ingredient into an energy drink. They put a bunch of additional complementary nutrition powerhouse ingredients in there, such as antioxidant heavy hitter and fellow superfruit acerola, guarana, guayaki yerba mate and green tea. The low-cal version, which tastes better, has only 40 calories and 9 g of sugar.
     
  5. Avitae
    But perhaps the main issue behind all these caffeinated carbonated concoctions is flavor issues. Maybe you like ‘em, maybe you don’t. So Vitality came out with Avitae caffeinated water. Tastes like, well, water! Brilliant idea there, and it comes in either a 45 mg caffeine or a 90 mg version. Zero calories, zero flavor—well, unless you count water as tasting like anything.

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