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Jennifer Grebow is editor-in-chief of Nutritional Outlook.
Increased stress and tiredness, especially over the past year, are sending consumers to supplement and food shelves to find support.
If the COVID-19 pandemic’s taught us anything, it’s that stress and fatigue can always grow. The pandemic caused an enormous spike in stress and exhaustion, mental and physical, in the past year, far and above what we’d typically experience in a normal year.
Many of us are now reevaluating our needs for self-care and support. Many are turning to energy, stress, and sleep aids, making these products even more popular than they were pre-pandemic.
Spoonshot (Minneapolis) is a market intelligence firm that leverages artificial intelligence (AI) and “consumer, business, and institutional data” to predict trends and innovation opportunities in foods and beverages. Company cofounder and CEO Kishan Vasani outlines the impact the pandemic’s had, as captured by Spoonshot data.
“In the last year, Spoonshot’s data showed that consumer concerns regarding stress went up by 31% over the last year, driven mainly by the pandemic,” he says. Not only that, “In the U.S., consumer concerns about the quality and quantity of sleep have increased by 40% over the last year and are projected to go up by 12% in the coming year.”
Energy support, stress relief, and sleep aid products now have the opportunity to connect with more customers than ever. To succeed, however, products still need to cater to consumer demands, say the experts interviewed for this story. In the wake of the pandemic, that means appealing to the public’s renewed focus on health. Preferences for cleaner, natural ingredients and better-for-you profiles are likely to be even more prevalent ongoing.
“Consumers want ingredients that work together with the body and not against it,” says Eli Faraggi, cofounder of InnoBev Ltd. For instance, shoppers are now drawn to sophisticated energy drinks imbued with added benefits that previous energy drinks didn’t offer, he says.
“Until recently, 100% energy drinks were one-trick ponies—and that trick was caffeine. Everything else was marketing,” Faraggi says.
But people want more than a blunt instrument. They want nuanced products that support their holistic health needs as well as their needs at various times of day. Older energy drinks couldn’t do this, Faraggi says, and thus may not be what a consumer is looking for today. “With most people working and studying from home,” he says, as an example, “the idea of drinking a product full of synthetic caffeine, with its resulting high heart rate and blood pressure, is not recommended nor productive.”
Today’s consumers want something different. “Consumers are not necessarily looking strictly for caffeine but rather are searching for specialized functional beverages for very specific activities, at different hours of the day, that are scientifically proven and not based on an expensive marketing campaign,” Faraggi adds.
Companies like Faraggi’s firm, InnoBev (Israel), as well as another company interviewed for this article, Mantra Labs (Austin, TX), call themselves chronobiology or “chrono-nutrition” companies because they focus on developing products that support consumers’ changing biological needs throughout the day.
For instance, Faraggi’s company, InnoBev, is a food-tech firm that created a formula called WakeUp BioWaker. WakeUp BioWaker includes extracts of guarana, Ginkgo biloba, and elderberry, which together provide slow-released energy plus cognitive and immune support. InnoBev formulated WakeUp BioWaker into its own retail drink, BioLift, which the firm says helps users maintain clarity and improve cognitive function and recall throughout the day. Marketing states that the product helps reduce “brain fog,” which the firm describes as the “post-lunch” dip in function and productivity that can occur during a typical workday afternoon. WakeUp BioWaker and BioLift’s benefit claims are backed by three clinical studies, the firm states.1,2,3
Over at supplements brand Mantra Labs, CEO and cofounder Paul Janowitz also believes in tracking consumer needs throughout the day.
“We are seeing customers focusing on well-being versus a quick fix or energy burst,” he says. “Customers want to feel good throughout the day and night. They are asking for and seeking out products that are good for their mental health as well as physical health. This is moving from ‘energy drinks’ to more functional drinks that support focus, stamina, and recovery.” Mantra’s line of Rise, Go, and Rest supplements are “synergistically timed to match our customers’ nutrition needs throughout the day for hydration, focus, energy and deep recovery, and restful sleep.”
“It is not just dumping 300 mg of caffeine and 10,000% of B12 anymore,” Janowitz continues. “Consumers want to feel good—not jittery—and are looking for clean-label energy alternatives.”
This is why many startup energy drink companies are focusing on product claims like “organic certified,” “contains vitamins,” and “natural,” Spoonshot’s Vasani adds. “Consumers will continue to look for energy-boosting products featuring clean and natural ingredients which also offer other functional benefits such as vitamins for immunity and overall good health,” he predicts.
He sees interest growing in several specific energy ingredients. Curcumin is one. Vasani says studies have shown curcumin helps reduce fatigue and improve memory. He expects demand for curcumin in this space to grow 86% this year.
Ashwagandha is also featured more often nowadays due to its ability to both boost energy and reduce stress. In the U.S., ashwagandha is starting to go mainstream. Interest in ashwagandha has grown 188% since 2016, Vasani observes, per Spoonshot data.
In general, herbs and spices like ginseng will continue gaining popularity in energy products. There is also more demand for electrolytes, which Vasani says allow companies to “position products as offering natural energy and rapid energy, without the caffeine jitters.”
Mantra’s Janowitz also notes the hydration trend: “We are seeing more and more synergy between hydration and functional ingredients. Hydration has blown up as a key tenet of well-being over the last 12 months, so many brands, including ours, are focusing on the core needs of hydration plus functional benefits.”
Sophisticated energy products offering wide-ranging health benefits continue to compete with the energy booster consumers are most used to: coffee. In 2020, consumer interest in coffee outperformed interest in energy drinks, at 28% versus 13%, respectively, Vasani says. Tea is also formidable. “Tea has emerged as a category within the energy space, taking advantage of tea’s overall health halo and, interestingly, promoting a ‘caffeine free’ claim, in addition to ‘organic’ and ‘natural,’” Vasani says. Caffeine-free teas often feature herbal teas and infusions as opposed to black or green tea.
Despite the competition, it’s an exciting time for energy drinks, full of reason to hope and to innovate. The wheels are beginning to turn.
Vasani says, “This category is seeing a bit of a revival after a downturn a few years ago when [energy drinks] came under fire for their high caffeine levels and the harm that they can do to the health of consumers.” If formulators can turn the ship around with healthier, natural products, energy drinks will increasingly go head-to-head with coffee, tea, and the energy drinks of yore.
It’s hard to imagine a time when global levels of stress were higher. “Sleep and stress—or stress then sleep, depending upon the day—became front and center for consumers,” says Mantra Labs’ Janowitz. “We saw a huge need for products that support focus and sleep. This aligns with increased stress, working from home, being a school teacher, and doing it all in the confines of the household.” Lack of sleep not only means that we’re tired and can’t function; it also adversely impacts our health. Says Janowitz: “The data around sleep is clear: If you don’t sleep well, you don’t function well physically or mentally, and your immune system breaks down.”
The pandemic has kept many of us up at night and could have a life-changing impact on the relaxation and sleep products market. As Janowitz observes, “Sleep became a new key health trend and not an afterthought.” He points to growing interest in “sleep hygiene” in general, including for products like blackout window shades and tools to adjust blue light and room temperature to boost sleep quality.
Product makers have leveraged the growing interest in sleep support and relaxation products, taking the opportunity to create some advanced products. “We are seeing more thought being put into an actual formulation—versus an arms race to put as much melatonin in a product as possible,” Janowitz comments.
This requires exploring the ingredient toolbox. Janowitz says Mantra did a lot of research when creating the company’s Rest drink-powder supplement, which contains magnesium, melatonin, GABA (PharmaGABA brand), L-theanine (Suntheanine brand), and herbs to support relaxation and sleep. “We researched for over a year to find what was truly clinically backed, healthy long-term and daily, and that worked synergistically with the body.”
“Consumers are savvy and looking for clinically backed ingredients that support calm and restful sleep,” he adds. “We expect even more science, ingredient innovation, and consumer interest in sleep. We should also expect to see a ton of performance—mental, physical, sports—related research and associated products to come out around sleep and recovery.”
Beverage development expert Imbibe (Niles, IL) sees lots of ingredients coming to the fore.
One can’t talk about relaxation in the supplements space without mentioning the growing presence of cannabidiol (CBD) in relaxation and sleep products. “CBD really takes the cake here, even though there are still murky regulations at the federal level surrounding this non-intoxicating cannabis compound,” says Ilana Orlofsky, senior marketing manager for Imbibe. She adds, “Pabst launched a THC-infused sparkling seltzer in Q4 of 2020, so we’d be remiss not to mention THC as it starts to penetrate more CPG products—though, of course, the pace will likely be slower as there are significant hurdles with selling products across state lines.”
“Other standouts,” she continues, “include L-theanine (which saw 22% growth in global Google searches in 2020), ashwagandha (which saw the same growth in 2020), and magnesium (somewhat popularized by PepsiCo’s launch of Driftwell).”
Mushrooms are also gaining. “Even though medicinal mushrooms are touted for a variety of benefits (cognitive, heart, immune support), different combinations of ingredients support different need states,” Orlofsky says. “The most common mushrooms making their way across beverage categories, including calming products, are reishi, chaga, cordyceps, lion’s mane, and turkey tail.”
Other adaptogens besides ashwagandha and mushrooms are also getting in on the action. “Many others seem to be equal in reception and prevalence,” Orlofsky says. “This includes tulsi/holy basil, Rhodiola rosea, schisandra, maca, and moringa—though moringa may be starting to gain a bit more traction.”
Spoonshot’s Vasani also sees gains in tulsi/holy basil and Rhodiola rosea. “A number of studies have found that tulsi can help reduce anxiety, depression, and stress,” he says. “It is also said to be able to effectively regulate cortisol levels.” Spoonshot data show consumer interest in tulsi growing by 114% since 2016. It’s been most featured in tea products, Vasani says, although usage is also growing in juices.
Of rhodiola, he says, “Pilot studies on rhodiola have found that rhodiola supplementation has the potential to improve mood and energy as well as reduce stress levels.” Rhodiola’s use in the U.S. market is still “limited” and primarily restricted to supplements, he cautions.
One interesting development is a growing interest in guayusa for relaxation products. Guayusa, which contains caffeine and is popular in energy boosters, also contains L-theanine, an amino acid linked to relaxation and calming.
And, in general, Vasani says, popular ingredients for relaxation and sleep—such as magnesium, melatonin, and tryptophan—will continue attracting a wider audience.
Perhaps the biggest difference in the stress and sleep market these days, even above product innovation, is the enhanced ability for brands to connect with consumers. Shoppers are actively seeking these products and more receptive than they have ever been. Companies—especially small, emerging ones—are finding growing consumer audiences online, says Imbibe’s Orlofsky.
“While there certainly has been innovation in products that boast the ability to help manage one’s mood and reduce stress, the biggest recent change has been in the digital marketing strategy and amplification of niche brands,” she explains. “Many have been around for a few years but are simply deemed as more relevant today due to the intensified stress that many of us are experiencing.”
Sleep and relaxation products that existed in the market long before the COVID-19 pandemic are also seeing resurged interest, Orlofsky says. “This isn’t to say that new products with a pronounced message around relaxation, unwinding, or calming down haven’t also been hitting the market with an unprecedented rapidity; there have just been a lot of products experiencing a bit of a renaissance due to a surge of consumers recognizing that food and beverages may neutralize some of their emotional and mood fluctuations.” One example she provides is WellWell, which sells a vanilla cardamom product called Dream and claims to support more restful sleep.
Moving forward, Orlofsky expects the relaxation and sleep market to become more diversified. “We wouldn’t be surprised to see even more segmentation in this space, similar to what we’ve seen in the energy space—a shift from the global ‘energy’ to pre-workout energy, focused energy, digital energy, enhanced productivity, energy for gamers, etc.,” she says. “This is one way to offer slight differentiation without grossly alienating a consumer set.”
For relaxation and sleep products, she advises, “Instead of offering a product to help merely ‘relax,’ you can increasingly find products that target a more individualized need-state, whether that be calm, unwind, dream, Zen—or to take a moment, recess, or day trip.” A growing portfolio of efficacious ingredients combined with the right marketing (“storytelling,” she says) will convey these nuanced benefits to the consumer looking for customized support.
Orlofsky ticks off some of the potential categories that could prove lucrative. “Maybe the next generation of this space includes products for overworked and underappreciated parents, or will address the burnout commonly associated with the millennial generation, or even touch on the good stresses in life—buying a house, getting married, having a baby. I haven’t seen anything so specific like that yet, but that level of sophistication, with a unique ingredient blend, could have legs in this marketplace if executed thoughtfully.”
The food and beverage market will continue to be a prime target for companies selling both energy and sleep/relaxation. For instance, InnoBev’s Faraggi reports, “I know firsthand that there is a great deal of interest from food and beverage companies around the world, including those who have not yet entered the energy category.” InnoBev’s energizing WakeUp formula can be included in snack bars, ice cream and dairy, cereal, and beverages, in addition to dietary supplements. Faraggi adds, “I am seeing great interest coming from the dairy industry as it looks to continue to expand its offerings to consumers.”
For relaxation and sleep, food opportunities are also ripe, says Spoonshot’s Vasani. “Ingredients related to relaxation are moving from supplements to beverages and now foods. Many of these relaxation ingredients have been available in beverage format due to the ease of formulation, including herbal teas, infusions, juices, functional waters, and shots. More recently, we’ve seen launches like ice creams that are intended to help relax and sleep better, featuring magnesium.”
Beverages will likely remain the most popular. “Since beverages tend to be an easy medium for these ingredients, expect to see sleep or anti-energy drinks capturing consumer interest,” says Vasani. “These are not meant for people with medical conditions or chronic sleep disorders, just for those who could use some help relaxing before bedtime.”
For those interested in entering the food market, Faraggi reminds that science should be priority one, noting that “everyone in the industry knows scientifically proven functional food is one of the fastest-growing parts of the food industry.”
Consumers’ clean-label and good-for-you preferences will, of course, continue to apply in the food and drink space. In the energy market, the use of low-glycemic-index sweeteners will help replace the high-sugar formulas that have been so demonized on the energy drinks shelf. As Faraggi says, “it doesn’t make a lot of sense for energy drinks to be full of sugar, on one hand, and on the other to see so-called diet energy drinks that are really an energy drink without any real energy, just caffeine.” The BioLift drink contains a low-GI carob and apple extract sweetener.
Demand for energy support and relaxation support products won’t wane anytime soon, “since there doesn’t appear to be any definitive idea as to when things will go back to some semblance of normalcy,” says Vasani. Until then, companies can get a leg up on putting responsible, innovative products on shelf—and, in the process, potentially gain a whole new generation of customers.