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Anti-energy: “Relaxation” beverages ride a backlash

Are energy drinks running out of gas? Do they belong on your beverage list anymore? And what about the emerging sleeper category of “relaxation beverages”?

Red Bull started the energy drink phenomenon back in the late 1980s and is still one of the best-selling brands. Sales of energy drinks grew a whopping 134 percent over a five-year period, according to research firm Mintel. Now the category is huge thanks to a proliferation of brands with hyperactive names like Go Fast, Rush, Sex Drive and Facedrink (“It gives you social energy”). Although sales are still growing, energy drink producers are having trouble attracting incremental new customers, says Mintel.

Avid fans of these stimulating brews might veto an establishment if it doesn’t carry them. But since the target consumer is largely adolescents and young adults, depending on the restaurant concept, some operators might not care.

Now there’s a backlash against highly caffeinated energy drinks. The beverages have been banned in a number of countries. In the U.S., Suffolk County, New York, and the state of Kentucky have proposals to ban energy drink sales to persons under 19.

The concern is high levels of caffeine, as much as 394mg per bottle depending upon the formulation—compared with up to 240mg in an 8 oz. cup of joe or 46 in a cola, according to UC Davis research. One energy drink component, guarana, contains twice as much caffeine as coffee, and other common ingredients enhance caffeine’s effects.

Now there’s energy offset in the other direction. Rather than pep consumers up, so-called downer drinks relax them, even put them to sleep. Evocatively named brands like Mary Jane, iChill, Unwind, Sleepyhead and Vacation in a Bottle contain soporifics like valerian root, kava, GABA and melatonin. One, Canna Cola, contains THC and is sold as medical marijuana where legal. Many of these substances are untested. Health professionals and public watchdog groups have sounded alarms.

Of course, many restaurants are already tapping the original relaxation drink—alcohol.

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