The energy products shelf is increasingly characterized by shared values, personal health, and sustainability.
Energy drinks, as a category, are hot and cool. Hot because the category is ripe for upstarts and newbies, those with a dream to quench their creative and entrepreneurial thirsts. And cool because those startups often enter the market with a plan to help save the planet in the process.
Not that the big guys and those already entrenched in the category are going anywhere soon. As Erin Costello, communications and events associate, Imbibe (Niles, IL), puts it, “While the top runners in this space might not be giving up their thrones just yet, this category has welcomed a number of brands that offer modernized options.” As an example, she mentions Ghost1, whose marketing copy for its energy drinks is as snappy as the drinks themselves. According to Costello’s read from market researcher IRI (Chicago) data, Ghost experienced a 1,505% increase in energy drink sales in the 52 weeks ending April 17, 2022.
Imbibe, no stranger to experience, is coming up on its 60th anniversary next year. With as many specialties—maybe more—as Dr. Addison Montgomery, the super-credentialed, super-fictional surgeon from Grey’s Anatomy, Imbibe wears a lot of hats. And all of them seem to fit well. The beverage innovation leader, drink developer, and more recently ingredient supplier (with its launch last year of Ingredients by Imbibe, a platform that offers the company’s ingredients to external R&D teams) is also a supplier of trends thanks to its Trendspotting blog.2 Says Costello, “As we’re making our way through 2022, rather than seeing a lot of the trends shift, we’re seeing expansion in these areas with new concepts popping into categories like canned cocktails, coffee, carbonated soft drinks, and more.”
Moreover, Costello advises, “We’re noticing this same trend in energy drinks, with plant-based being highlighted as an attribute of energy drinks and this category targeting additional need states like immunity, cognitive support, and added vitamins.”
For those companies considering energy ingredients, Costello says Imbibe’s robust team of experts often advises its clients “to consider more natural sources of energy.” She sees growing interest in ingredients like B vitamins, matcha, cascara, yaupon, and yerba mate as a mechanism for delivering the pick-me-up consumers are looking for, often with other inherent benefits that come from antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, or other compounds.
And, of course, in the energy drink category, none of those trends can become a reality without the drinks still tasting good. Thanks to greater attention to newer technology from suppliers and manufacturers, health-conscious consumers can enjoy their energy drinks with less sugar and added functional ingredients, without the bitter aftertaste of years past. With taste in mind, Costello cites 2021 research from market researcher Mintel (London) which, she advises, says that approximately 24% of consumers reported eating and drinking more savory flavors in 2021.
This could potentially see consumers welcoming more earthy flavors from functional ingredients, she adds. Suppliers, brands, and consumers with a taste for trendy adaptogenic mushrooms like lion’s mane, chaga, reishi, and cordyceps will celebrate this news. And although adaptogens have been used for centuries in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine, Time magazine noted back in 2018 that these herbs, roots, and nontoxic plants are enjoying a renaissance.3
The Appeal of Mushroom-Based Energy Drinks
Om Mushroom Superfood, a leading producer of high-quality mushroom powders, beverages, and supplements, expanded its portfolio in 2021 with the launch of its Morning Energy Blend, a clean, caffeine-free, eco-friendly boost of energy in single-serve sachets. The product contains two species of cordyceps, plus vitamin D2 from Agaricus bisporus, to support energy, vitality, and mood. Lion’s mane and rhodiola, meanwhile, promote focus; Turkey Tail and King Trumpet provide immune support; and reishi and chaga provide balance and antioxidants. Morning Energy Blend is also available in a 30-serving biodegradable canister.4
Jan Hall, Om Mushroom Superfood’s CEO, said of the new caffeine-free coffee and tea alternative, “Morning Energy Blend gave us a natural opportunity to expand beyond our core line of beloved functional mushroom coffees and teas and offer consumers a beverage that would leave them energized but without caffeine jitters.”4
The sachets contain only 30 calories and 1 g of sugar, and no added sweeteners, artificial flavors, or colors. In addition, Morning Energy Blend is USDA certified organic, certified kosher, vegan, and gluten free. “We know that consumers are looking for sustainable options and products with clean, functional ingredient panels now more than ever,” Hall noted.4
More Mushrooms—and Some Bumps—Along the Way
Amaz is another company counting on growing consumer interest in plant-based, better-for-you, and good-for-the-planet energy drinks. In 2018, cofounders Gustavo Nader, CEO, and Demian Moraru, chief marketing officer, introduced the American market to a line of super plant elixirs they now call “more of a concept product” developed and revamped as the entrepreneurs took more time to get to know the American beverage market and its consumers.5
The elixirs were well received within some health and wellness communities, particularly yoga studios and sporting events, and were sold at Whole Foods Market and Erewhon stores in California for over a year before the original formulation and branding was determined to be too niche for what the founders had in mind: a mainstream expansion for this brand with a story to tell.5
So, Nader and Moraru went back to the drawing board, conducted market research among 30,000 consumers, analyzed additional market data, and conducted demos to gather more feedback. As a result, they discontinued Amaz’s initial portfolio and relaunched its new product line in April 2021—unfortunately smack in the middle of the pandemic. Fast-forward to March 2022 when Amaz’s diligence and perseverance led to a sweet reward: selection as a top-five semifinalist for standout emerging, mission-driven, and innovative brands in the Natural Products Expo West 2022 Pitch Slam competition.5,6
The new—and improved—product line is called “Amaz Organic Sparkling Yerba Mate,” an organic, sparkling tea with adaptogens. The 12-oz canned teas are “rich in antioxidants and nutrients, used to boost energy and improve mental focus,” says Nader. They are available in three flavors—Acai Blueberry, Lemon Ginger, and Peach Mango. Each can contains 80 mg of natural caffeine, zero calories, zero sugar, and has a proprietary blend of ingredients including Yanomami mushrooms, suma root, acerola cherry, green tea, and guarana.
“Yerba mate was a very obvious choice—first, because of the growth the category is seeing in the U.S., and second because it is aligned with our values,” says Nader. It didn’t hurt that the cofounders grew up drinking yerba mate in their native Brazil.
They connected with investor Vinicius Biagi Antonelli, an entrepreneur focused on regenerative farming in Brazil who infused funding into the development of the yerba mate line. Amaz secured ingredients from Origens Brasil, an ethically sourced supplier focused on environmental sustainability in the Amazon rainforest.5 The Yanomami mushrooms, for example, are “a blend of native mushrooms collected and consumed by the indigenous Yanomami people for their nutritional balance,” says Nader. The market for these mushrooms helps generate income for indigenous communities, he adds.
From a marketing perspective, the company’s story is simpler than when it started—and that’s purposeful. Says Nader, “we wanted to be clearer on the communication to consumers.” Nader notes that “we only have a few seconds” for the products to attract consumers’ shelf attention, allowing consumers to “be able to understand the product and its benefits” and to make a yes-or-no decision. “We learned that elixir is a niche term,” states Nader, and with the goals of nationwide expansion and the need to clarify messaging for consumers, he adds that “we needed to improve.”
Amaz’s Organic Sparkling Yerba Mate line is available in Whole Foods Market and Erewhon, in the Amaz store on Amazon.com, and is available online direct-to-consumer from the company website.7
The Trail Forward
The lessons learned by Amaz also resonate with Imbibe’s Costello, who says that “consumers are highly focused on the results that are promised from beverages, and although they’re seeking out products that are targeting certain need states, consumers are looking for this through products that are calling out and featuring it on their packaging and in their marketing.” To satisfy that need, she says that many brands have repackaged their products to call out a targeted need state, sugar reduction, and/or functional ingredients.
As an example of how the big brands are watching the entrepreneurial players in the beverage space, Costello uses a Snapple rebrand this past April as an example. “Snapple rebranded its tried-and-true beverage line, Diet Snapple, with new bottles and a new ad campaign to feature ‘zero sugar’ instead, dropping the term diet from all messaging,” she shares.
Company Values Help Consumers Find Their Brand
Costello also believes that brands, big and small, are looking to “align more with the target consumers’ values today.” And vice versa.
And that’s at the heart of Amaz’s story. Says Nader, “We believe that new products need to take a step further to promote sustainable diets and regeneration. It’s not only about protecting the environment; it’s also about consumers’ wellbeing and planetary health.”
Nader says consumers are increasingly aware of the relationship between consumption, environmental sustainability, wellbeing, and climate change. “Consumers are shifting toward sustainable diets, seeking a more holistic approach to personal and planetary health,” he advises.
Amaz’s story is built around the support, regeneration, and biodiversity in the Amazon rainforest. As such, Amaz partnered with Xingu Seeds Network, a nonprofit organization helping regrow trees in the Amazon rainforest, with a pledge of 2% of the company’s proceeds to the environmental project.5
“The Amazon Rainforest is a vital part of the global climate system, so to protect and regenerate the Amazon has a direct effect on our planet and the wellness of the people. Our planet is one living system, and everything is connected after all,” says Nader.
Others, too, recognize this need for shared values. Imbibe’s Costello explains that sustainable brands are being held accountable and sought out for their commitment to recapturing carbon emissions. “This, of course, will extend beyond food and beverage, but the momentum behind the ‘climavore’ movement is growing,” she says. “Within the next three years, there will be a lot more products that will be sorted or filtered by their carbon emissions, potentially with a carbon score card or a carbon neutral marking of some kind.”
A Company’s Commitment to Carbon and Coffee Changes
Carbon neutrality is at the heart of Riff’s story.8 This purpose-driven, sustainably minded coffee company announced earlier this year that Riff Energy+ had been officially certified carbon neutral by the Carbonfund.org Foundation’s Carbonfree Product Certification Program.9,10 According to the company, the product is “the nation’s first energy drink and functional beverage to be certified carbon neutral.”11
“We are thrilled to be working with Riff on this partnership to go carbon neutral,” said Eric M. Carlson, president, Carbonfund.org Foundation, in a press release. “Forward-thinking companies are continuing to prove that new products, such as energy drinks, can be part of the fight against climate change. Riff is taking their environmental sustainability seriously, which is an important step toward a more sustainable future for all of us.”11
Riff Energy+ is brewed from nutritionally rich and naturally sweet upcycled cascara (meaning that fruit surrounding the coffee bean is reused and repurposed rather than going to waste) and touts not only its carbon neutral certification but also its clean label and functionality (packed with antioxidants and vitamin C). The good-for-you-and-the-planet sparkling energy drink in a can is fueled with clean caffeine—an amount equivalent to that in a cup of coffee—and is available in three flavors: Booyah Berry, Get-It Guava, and Pick-It-Up Pomegranate. It is sold on the company’s website, on the Riff store on Amazon.com, and in store locations in the “upper left” portion of the U.S. (Washington, Oregon, and parts of California).8,11
The company was founded in 2017 with the goal of creating a unique yet sustainable packaged coffee beverage. In addition to Riff Energy+, Riff sells a line of cold-brewed, ready-to-drink coffee.8,11
After learning about the seriously negative impact on the environment over the 400+ year life of the coffee industry from decomposing wasted cascara, Riff adopted a mission to utilize 100% of the coffee plant’s agricultural value, launching Riff Energy+ in 2021.11
It’s clear from the company’s website—as Paul Evers, Riff’s cofounder and CEO, said—that “We’re all super passionate coffee lovers at Riff, but as we learned more and more about coffee’s impact on the environment related to food waste, along with the challenging conditions coffee farmers face every day, there’s no way we could remain complacent.” Riff’s focus shifted quickly, he added, to “developing a product that would generate a positive impact. Riff’s purpose became reducing greenhouse gas emissions, avoiding nutrient-rich food waste, and helping vulnerable coffee-growing companies.”11
Ted Volz, founder of Clean Energy, a clean-label, plant-based sports nutrition company, is another entrepreneur banking on consumer commitment to their own health and that of the planet. In the fall of 2021, Clean Energy introduced its company with the launch of its first product line: single-serve, ultra-convenient, better-for-you, on-the-go smoothie packets containing only organic fruits and vegetables.12
The Clean Energy snackable smoothies provide the nutrition of a homemade smoothie with the convenience of a packaged food and the electrolyte boost of leading energy gels, without the mess or cleanup of mixing or blending a smoothie, according to the company’s press release.12
Volz is also counting on consumers being drawn to the brand’s transparency. “The terms natural and natural flavors have become misleading and confusing and don’t always mean what consumers expect,” said Volz.12
He says that “transparency matters to consumers, with 72% of people surveyed indicating that detailed information on things like what’s in their food and how it’s made is important or extremely important to them, according to findings in the latest report from the Food Industry Association (FMI).” He adds that the same report demonstrated that 79% of those surveyed said that clear and complete ingredient definitions generate more trust. The same percentage claimed they are more likely to be loyal to a brand that has more detailed information on physical labels.
The ingredients in Clean Energy’s smoothies are simple. According to the company’s website, Clean Energy smoothies are 100% organic, pureed banana, strawberry, blueberry, spinach, flaxseed, and a touch of lemon juice concentrate as a natural preservative. They’re also USDA certified (through Pro-Cert), vegan, non-GMO, kosher, and gluten- and dairy-free.13
“These plants are the only sources of carbs, sugar, and protein [in the product],” says Volz. “All naturally occurring, nothing added. By definition, calories are energy, and as you’ll see on the nutritional panel on the Clean Energy box, [the product] includes 0 g of added sugars.”
In addition to being available for purchase on the company’s website13, the smoothies are sold on the Clean Energy Smoothie store on Amazon.com as well as in a handful of running shoe stores in the Midwest and Northeast and on bubblegoods.com, an online food retailer that only offers clean-label foods they have tested and approved, says Volz. The products are sold in an eight-pack case of single-serve packets.
The concept for Clean Energy was branded for competitive athletics, and Volz advises that it has been well received by a broad group of individuals and organizations, including some registered dietitians working with Division 1 and professional teams for their high-performance collegiate and professional athletes, UFC fighters who are uncompromising on nutrition, and recreational endurance athletes. This year, Runner’s World recognized Clean Energy in its annual fitness awards as a “Best Food to Eat Before a Run.”14
Volz says “Clean Energy is developed for sports nutrition, as an alternative for many sports nutrition products that have added sugar, lab-created ingredients, and/or caffeine.” Because Clean Energy is 100% organic fruits and vegetables, and a convenient and shelf-stable snack, however, he believes Clean Energy will end up having a much broader application beyond sports nutrition. In addition to the brand’s original target audience, Volz is finding that other consumers are discovering and sharing their enjoyment of the product, especially those consumers on the go or with limited time who still want an energizing snack with the convenience of a portable package. To reach that audience, Volz says his company is connecting “through individual outreach and digital marketing.”
He’s not surprised that he’s started to get new enthusiasts sharing photos of themselves with the product, like the pregnant mom in the delivery room or the traveler on an airplane. “In places where healthy food can be challenging to find, Clean Energy can be a convenient option,” he says.
Furthermore, “Maintaining organic certification is important to Clean Energy,” Volz adds, “because we believe that in the long run, organic is better for the environment and the body.”
At the end of the day, for the energy drinks category, as with so many others, business is increasingly about shared values, personal health, and the planet’s future. All capped, of course, by good taste.