Unit volumes of energy drinks were up a whopping 18.7% in 2012 - a staggering achievement given that unit sales of consumer packaged goods across all outlets slumped 0.3% over the same period - according to Symphony IRI*.
However, food and beverage manufacturers are increasingly moving away from the sugar-laden cough-syrup-tasting ‘punch you in the mouth’ formulations that first hit the market, and experimenting with lower calorie formulations and new delivery formats with a more ‘natural’ positioning, says Adam Berzins, principal technologist in the sweeteners division at Ingredion.
While energy drinks typically conjure up images of extreme sports, twenty-year-olds engaging in high-octane clubbing or burning the midnight oil, the potential market for bars, shots, cereals and other energy-boosting products is far bigger than that, notes Berzins.
Who’s the target market? High-octane sports enthusiasts or weary office workers?
Indeed, as top-selling energy shot maker 5-Hour Energy understands better than most, middle-aged office workers are probably more in need of a pick-me-up as their energy levels start to flag mid-afternoon than their teenage kids.
However, they don’t want to pile on the calories, or get a sugar-rush - and then a slump - and they are increasingly looking for products that provide health benefits (fiber, vitamins, protein) as well as a sustained level of energy, he says.
“People are not expecting to drink it and then come up with their own theory of relativity, but they are expecting to feel invigorated and to get a sustained level of clarity and focus for three to five hours or so.
“We are getting more requests from companies working on energy formulations, but the energy space is going into a different realm. We’re working on everything from coffee drinks, cookies and bars, to cereals, crackers, muffins, shots and beverages.”
Stevia is key for firms looking for a natural positioning and reduced calories
For firms looking for a natural positioning and reduced calories, stevia is key to many of these new formulations, he says.
From a flavoring standpoint, stevia also works well in energy shots and beverages as consumers familiar with Red Bull and Monster are actually expecting a slightly more astringent taste from ingredients such as B vitamins and caffeine, so masking bitter off notes associated with stevia is less of a priority, he points out.
Conversely, the lingering sweetness of stevia can in turn mellow out some of the astringency of the other ingredients (B vitamins, guarana, taurine) over time.
Some companies want to deliver that punch you in the mouth, acid bite and bitter finish
While some energizing ingredients (caffeine, guarana, ginseng etc) are expected in beverages making an energy claim, large amounts of sugar are not, and firms are increasingly looking to stevia, and adding ingredients such as coconut water, fibers (which add body as you remove sugar), and vitamins & minerals to boost the nutritional profile and broaden the appeal of these products, he says.
“There are some companies that want to deliver that punch you in the mouth, acid bite and bitter finish, and they overload it with ginseng or something else and it tastes like cough syrup.
“But there is a growing portion of consumers that want to feel more energized from a range of products that they already consume, so that they can get the energy and nutrition they need without having to change their lifestyle.”
What next in shots?
So what next for the shots category? There are some interesting new products in this area, notably the Sleepytime relaxation shot from Hain Celestial (which also broke new ground this year with its refrigerated Kombucha shots).
However, it can be challenging for retailers to know where to stock these products, especially if they require refrigeration (eg. probiotic shots), as most of them are only geared up to sell them at the checkouts, where you will find candy bars, lip balm and 5-Hour Energy, as opposed to the hottest new health and wellness products, observes Berzins.
Sugar or high fructose corn syrup?
As to whether high fructose corn syrup belongs in energy or other beverages with a natural positioning, that is up to manufacturers (who are increasingly being targeted by class action lawsuits on this issue), says Berzin.
However, the trend to make a virtue of avoiding HFCS has waned somewhat, he says, while some firms that switched from HFCS to sucrose have switched back as [the expected rise in sales] “never materialized”.
He adds: “In many energy drinks and flavored water applications, sugar and HFCS will behave identically, whereas in other beverage and dairy applications, there are formulation advantages to using HFCS.
“But they both work equally well with stevia in reduced calorie applications, which is a growing area as people are moving away from sugar-free."
*The data is from the Symphony IRI report: ‘Center Store: Driving Growth from the Inside Out’ .