A Load of Red Bull and Then Some

"Energy drinks," aggressively marketed in recent years, promise to increase concentration and alertness. Why do so many people want to further reduce the amount of time they sleep?

For the last month, it has been impossible to avoid hearing the Gevatron song troupe joyously singing away in television advertisements for a new "energy drink." Many may have been surprised by the linkage between bales of hay and good old Eretz Yisrael, and a drink associated with nightclub culture, but the energy drink marketing agencies believe it is a completely natural course of events.

Five energy drinks are currently sold in Israel and their marketers target all kinds of groups: from the young who hang out at nightclubs to pensioners who want to take better advantage of their free time.

The latest marketing assault is part of a recent worldwide phenomenon of significant increases in sales and consumption of energy drinks. According to a survey by the British consulting and consumer firm, Zenith International, the energy drink market doubles itself every year. In England alone, over 20 such brands were launched in a market that takes in around £700 million.

The question is why are so many people interested in further reducing the amount of time they sleep, beyond the limit of normal tiredness and artificially enhancing their concentration. Why does society accept the energy drinks with equanimity and enthusiasm, while its institutions fight tooth and nail against the legalization of marijuana, which could ease the pain of chronically ill patients and is no more dangerous than alcohol?

Mini bottles with no label

Futurist Dr. David Passig says that energy drinks reflect a cultural need to use time more efficiently. "The trick is not to stay awake more hours, but to better use the time and our hours of concentration when we're awake," he explains.

According to him, "this streamlining is a result of cultural pressure. Modern man views efficiency as an important value. In my opinion, the food companies still haven't comprehended the commercial potential of alertness-enhancing food and beverages - just like a decade ago, as well as today, the cellular phone companies didn't grasp man's real need for wireless communications. Man's need to streamline his waking hours is huge. We utilize only around 30 percent of the 16 hours we are awake a day. We invest another 30-40 percent in body maintenance and we are left with another 30 percent that is wasted time.

"The idea of streamlining the body's functioning is a result of improving systems that leads to more efficient use of time and division of a person's time into smaller units. Man becomes a more intelligent being who recognizes his finite nature. The more aware he is that his time is limited, the more he wants to better exploit that time."

When asked why this very calculated race in the end leads to a reaction and back to nature movements, Passig offers a futurist's predictable answer: "The return to nature, like every counter-trend, essentially reinforces the modern world. These movements after all aren't really interested in the demise of all modern systems and their replacement with systems from previous eras. They're interested in being an eternal opposition."

The signs, such as increased demand for food supplements that add more waking hours or enhance concentration, appeared years ago: A survey taken in the United States to assess the market penetration of new technological developments asked participants their opinion on "awake pills" that were not harmful to their health, but would reduce the number of hours of sleep. The respondents in the survey, taken from a representative sample, unequivocally predicted that such a product would enter the market before 2000.

Indeed the energy drinks began appearing in large numbers in the Western world as early as 1995, but their breakthrough into public consciousness and the intense competition among manufacturers only started in the last year. According to Gil Melamede, the CEO of Tymco Beer, which markets the Red Bull energy drink in Israel, energy drinks first appeared around 30 years ago in the Far East; they were sold at food stands as syrup in mini bottles with no labels or identification.

The person responsible to a large extent for the product's penetration of the Western world is Dietrich Mateschitz, an American company representative in the Far East who sought to market them after making a few changes.

In 1987, Mateschitz launched a sweet beverage under the name Red Bull in the Austrian market, but only in 1994 did marketing spread to other European countries and the U.S. The product gained momentum in 1999 after vigorous marketing efforts.

One of the main factors behind the success of energy drinks was the flourishing of high-tech companies that employed many young people who worked long hours. In 2000, the Coca-Cola Company launched a special drink that was marketed to participants in "hacker conferences," where they competed in developing software and computer games. Coca-Cola identified the public relations potential of these conferences and gave out cans of Coke with four times the amount of caffeine as a regular drink. Coca-Cola has been selling a later variation of the drink, called Burn, in Britain for the last year or so.

The most prominent drink of those sold to computer and high-tech people is Jolt, which of course can also be purchased at an Internet site (http://www.wetplanet.com). The drink got its first exposure in a cult film, "Hackers," and received extensive public relations when Bill Gates recommended it during interviews he gave to MTV.

What you get

However, the beverage companies want to distance themselves as much as possible from passing fads, certainly ones that are against the backdrop of collapsing start-up companies. "We started with the nightclub crowd because it's more open to new products, and it needs a drink to wake them up at the end of a party," says Melamede. "But it's a functional drink suitable for whoever wants to have a few more waking hours. Who doesn't want to be refreshed if he's tired?"

His answer to the question why are energy drinks so popular right now is reminiscent of advertising slogans from previous decades: "It's a drink that is very suited to this generation," says Melamede. "The modern person's average day in this generation, as opposed to the previous generation, is different. We have to work harder and our expectations of ourselves are higher. It's a drink for a generation that wants to get more done."

Why shouldn't you just rest when you're tired?

"The phenomenon of dealing with a lack of energy is an old one: we've been drinking coffee and tea for hundreds of years. Today there are very few people who don't drink coffee in the morning, even if only in the morning, to wake up. The world is changing and more and more people want to get rid of the fatigue and are willing to drink a beverage that isn't harmful to their health and will meet this need. Incidentally, energy drinks only have an effect when you're tired."

Energy drinks, Melamede explains, affect the body via several different ingredients. "Red Bull, for example, contains two types of amino acids: taurine and glucuronolactone," he says. "When the body is tired, the level of theses acids in the blood drops and the drink raises them back up, as well as the level of caffeine, sugars and B-complex vitamins."

Dr. Anna Shapira, a food scientist at the Ministry of Health, presents the situation in a slightly different light. She explains that a can of the drink has around 160 milligrams of caffeine - twice the amount in a regular cup of coffee. This large quantity of caffeine and sugar is, according to her, what causes the drink's stimulating effect. She is, however, doubtful about the effects of the amino acids. The acids contained in the beverages are defined as "semi-necessary," i.e., they are already present in the body. "Taurine, for example, is an acid that is already present in reasonable levels in adults," says Shapira. "Drinking an energy drink adds taurine. We haven't yet found that that's harmful, but it certainly is adding more of a substance that is already in the body and you have to be careful."

"Energy drink is a name the manufacturer gave the beverage because he wants to sell it," she says. "Energy is obtained when you consume food or drink that has fat, protein or sugar that the body burns. That isn't the case with energy drinks. It isn't possible to do laboratory check on the `energy' in these kinds of beverages. The ingredients are also not food supplements. A food supplement is a chemical substance added to a food or beverage for a specific purpose: stabilizer, food coloring, sweetener, and so on. Here, these are ingredients the manufacturer added because he thinks they have a positive affect."

Shapira specifically cautions against having energy drinks mixed with alcohol. "The energy drinks don't need to be mixed with anything. Alcohol affects our bodies in a specific way and mixing the two could be harmful." She stresses that, "we have to listen to our body. If we are tired, we should rest, freshen up and eat something. Don't push off the fatigue by drinking a high energy drink."

Meanwhile, David Passig is waiting for the next generation of energetic food products, which may be harder to market. Then, he says, foods and beverages will be sold that not only enable better usage of time, but also add time, i.e., increase life expectancy.