Manufacturers add energy 'buzz' to foods

Posted: September 03, 2008

What has Red Bull wrought?

The popular energy drink and a host of liquid competitors, according to a food trends analyst, have led to this: People want a buzz from their food, too.

If coffee's not your thing, get your caffeine in Morning Spark oatmeal, Sumseeds sunflower seeds, or Phoenix Fury potato chips. In Japan, where energy is in especially high demand, consumers can buy "Men's Soy Sauce Ramen Noodles," a dried pork soup spiked with caffeine.

Marketers are also stretching "energy" to mean healthy, non-stimulant foods, such as berries or flaxseed, that supposedly give your body or brain a boost. And they're pushing sugar for its energy rush.

By that definition, of course, all food is energy food. And no one would need this stuff if they just got enough sleep and exercised a little.

"Of course, that's the solution, but most people don't want to do that," said Krista Faron, a senior analyst for Mintel International Group Ltd., a market-research company in Chicago. Instead, she said, you will see the word energy slapped on many more foods.

The trend of energy claims moving beyond drinks and energy bars into everything from dairy products to chocolate in this country has accelerated in the last year.

The attraction is obvious enough. "People are busy. People are stressed. They're tired," Faron said.

Plus, makers of energy drinks have done a fine job of marketing products - at premium prices - to young people who like "extreme" consumption, she said. In a Mintel survey released in July, more than a third of teenagers and 15 percent of adults said they drank energy drinks. Mintel estimates sales at $4.8 billion this year.

Daniel Monti, director of the Jefferson-Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University, is concerned. "What we're doing is we're using these products as a replacement for good nutrients and adequate sleep," he said.

Staying hyped on stimulants all day stresses a body and disrupts sleep, he said. "We are never giving our bodies a chance to rejuvenate and revitalize."

Stimulants such as caffeine activate our sympathetic nervous system, the fight or flight mechanism that helped primitive humans flee saber-toothed tigers. It does heighten awareness, but too much of that can make people feel tense and anxious, Monti said.

He recommends no more than 200 mg of caffeine a day. A cup of coffee has 80 to 100 mg.

Given the epidemic of obesity and diabetes in this country, he said, turning to sugar for energy is a "disaster."

Tim Walter, president and chief executive officer of Dakota Valley Products Inc., of Sioux Falls, S.D., maker of Sumseeds, thought seeds and caffeine were a natural pair. A lot of truckers and hunters like the seeds and need to stay awake. His seeds have more caffeine than most energy drinks and less sugar.

"It just goes real well with hunters who might be sitting in blinds waiting for their game to come and need to stay awake," said Walter, who sounds surprisingly mellow for a guy who claims to drink 20 cups of coffee a day and eat Sumseeds.

Two years ago, Golden Flake, a regional maker of potato chips in Birmingham, Ala., entered the energy game with two flavors of caffeinated chip, ranch-flavored Overload and spicy Phoenix Fury.

"We saw what kind of business those energy drinks are doing, and we thought we should at least have an entry into that category," said Julie McLaughlin, director of marketing.

What exactly makes something an energy food or drink? Faron said the core ingredients had been caffeine; B vitamins; taurine, an amino acid; and guarana, a stimulant derived from an Amazonian plant. Now, the claims extend to other natural ingredients, such as ginseng, omega 3 fatty acids, and foods such as acai, a exotic berry touted as a superfruit.

Green tea is everywhere. Faron said its caffeine came with a "healthy halo." Odwalla, for example, says its new Serious Focus fruit drink contains "naturally occurring caffeine from green tea extract."

A Japanese company sells Concentration Chocolate, candy balls made of milk chocolate and glucose, a form of sugar. They are supposed to give you a burst of energy that aids concentration.

In Europe, a company cleverly tells customers its cookies provide enough energy for an hour of sports. And here we thought that is how long it would take to burn off the calories.

"It's a perfect example that this isn't necessarily science," Faron said.

She expects to see more market segmentation as companies say their products provide different kinds of energy: quick rushes, physical endurance or better thinking.

It is all part of the trend toward multifunctional foods that is making vitamin waters popular. "Why only get one benefit when you can get five?" Faron asked.

She said she thought customers were far from fed up with all the energy claims. "I don't think we've really come close to reaching the saturation point for these kinds of products," she said. "I think there's still kind of a novelty."


Contact staff writer Stacey Burling at 215-854-4944 or sburling@phillynews.com.

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