The woman behind the counter at the convenience store had warned me: — "You know, this will put you to sleep." She'd tried one recently and it had left her barely able to keep her eyes open on the job.
The item in question was a bottle of Marley's Mellow Mood Tea, Citrus Flavor, a "relaxation drink," that licenses Bob Marley's face for use on its bottle. It does, indeed, put you to sleep.
Melatonin is the active ingredient in the $1.99 can of Marley's that caused me to pass out at 8:15 p.m. after drinking three-quarters of a can. The feeling of quickly-creeping tiredness was similar to taking a pill of Nyquil. You could force yourself to stay awake if you really wanted to, but you could also find yourself dozing off in the fairly early evening after a not particularly exhausting day. I woke up dazed at 10:30 p.m. and then again at 6 a.m. I was rested, but disoriented.
So yes, the drinks put me to sleep, but I don't think I want to drink any of them ever again. Next time I want to drink my way to calmness, I think I'll settle for that time-tested and more abundant form of liquid relaxation. (A glass of wine, anyone?)
That's the problem that relaxation drinks, which came to the United States around 2006, are facing. As distributors and industry analysts explain, consumers are initially interested in trying a drink that can put you to sleep with an effect similar to cough syrup or alcohol, but it's tough to get them hooked. If the budding industry wants to stay afloat, they'll have to go target a more niche market of insomniacs and those with other sleep disorders.
When relaxation drinks first started hitting U.S. shelves, the media got hyped over a product called Drank, which is purple in color and evokes "purple drank," a homegrown beverage concocted primarily of cough syrup and popularized by the Houston, Texas hip-hop persona DJ Screw. It feels like a sugary party drink, and it's not hard to imagine it being popular with underage revelers looking for a cheap high.
Tim Barham, a top distributor of Drank, denies that the drink's name is meant to evoke an association with narcotics. "I don't associate any illicit drugs with the name. Drank is drank. We all get a drank in the south," Barham, who works out of Memphis, Tennessee, said. On the other hand, he admitted college students are probably the drink's biggest target audience — and Barham was also a co-creator of Lazy Larry's, a brand of melatonin-spiked brownies. (A Drank rep told me that Barham is no longer affiliated Lazy Larry's.)
While melatonin-packed drinks (and snacks) that had some degree of party or narcotic association got attention when they debuted a few years ago, those in the industry say things are going in a different direction. There's the novelty wearing off, and there's also the fact that the FDA is cracking down.
"The initial surge of these brands was based around the idea that they'd cause more of a narcotic effect than a sleep-inducing effect. Those effects while interesting to consumers on an experimental basis, are tough to get people hooked on, explained Jeffrey Klineman, the editor of BevNET, a magazine and website that covers the drink industry. "The real need for these drinks is sleep or relaxation not the pseudo-narcotic effect." From my experience trying them, there's another problem: these drinks aren't all that fun to take. They just make you pass out.
Because of this, Klineman reasoned, the industry is changing the way it presents itself — a move away away from the Dranks of the world."We're starting to see some of the more radical propositions fall by the wayside. We're seeing more traditional and less edgy branding to capture a larger share of accounts," he said. As evidence of this, look at a top contender in the market, Neuro, which produces Neuro Sleep and Neuro Stress. They use bottles that resemble lava lamps and seem to be clearly targeted more at stressed and insomniac office workers who might buy into the idea of relief in a bottle. In the energy drink world, products like Five Hour Energy have succeeded in providing an office-friendly alternative to more extreme choices like Mountain Dew and Monster energy drinks. The marketing trend with relaxation drinks is no different.
Another trend is the movement away from melatonin — a substance potent enough that the FDA isn't a fan. "They asked us to stop calling it a beverage," Barham explained. "They don't like melatonin with the word beverage."
By not calling it a beverage, Drank is a "supplement," meaning the FDA can turn more of a blind eye towards it. "Supplement Facts means that it’s being marketed as a dietary supplement and does not have to meet FDA’s requirements for substantial scientific support and marketing claims, and there is little oversight of whether what’s on the label is in the package," Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition and public health at NYU, wrote in an email.
Melatonin isn't anything new — it's been around as a sleep-inducing supplement for decades. What's more new is that in a drink, you're less likely to know how much you're getting. And in some cases, you might not know what you're getting at all.
While melatonin-spiked liquids are now referred to as "products" or "supplements," the naming change doesn't have much effect in stores. They're still sold right next to the soda and energy drinks. And unless you see the small warning that "this drink make cause drowsiness" and that you "should not exceed two a day," you might even mistake it for a soda. That is, after all, what happened to the cashier I spoke to.
Drank has pulled out of New York City and other top markets. They wouldn't supply any distribution numbers, but they did tell me that they've released a new flavor called "Island Time."
While Drank continues to use melatonin, others are increasingly moving away from the ingredient because of pressure from the FDA as well as retailers, who have taken note of the fact that the FDA has called melatonin potentially dangerous. Even Marley's Mellow Mood, Klineman said, is developing melatonin-free products because of demand from stores. Marley's, he explained, occupies a middle space in the market where it's doesn't have all the "purple drank" vibe, but isn't explicitly a sleep product either.
With a melatonin crackdown and retailer demand for milder products, brands are turning to other ingredients like theanine, Valerian root, and even chamomile, to achieve relaxation effects, but it's unclear whether these ingredients will really put people to sleep, or relax them at all. A drink using valerian and theanine called Slow Cow barely affected me at all (though I did gasp at its turquoise color and horrifyingly metallic taste).
One entrepreneur, Dan Rumennik, wants to take the anti-drowsy relaxation drinks idea a step further, having allegedly created a relaxation drink that doesn't make you tired. "You can't drink most relaxation drinks at work," he said. As a student at Harvard Business School, Rumennik founded bcalm, which he hesitates to call a relaxation drink. It doesn't contain any ingredients that will make you drowsy, but rather ones that will calm you. He uses an ingredient called hydralized casein, which is said to mimic the calming effects that warm milk has on babies. Rumennik said he "didn't see any products out there that appealed to educated consumers."
Personally, I found the fizzy, berry-flavored drink pleasant, but it didn't do much to lower my stress levels.
The relaxation drink industry finds itself at a kind of crossroads. Flashy, pseudo-narcotic drinks attract media attention and thrill-seekers, but they'll have a hard time locking down devoted customers. And drinks marketed to insomniacs are either not potent enough, or boring.
It's easy to see why so many entrepreneurs are going after the relaxation drink industry, when you consider that the Juice Production industry, which includes functional beverages like energy drinks, juices, and packaged coffee and tea beverages, has grown into a $27 billion industry, according to a December 2011 study by research firm IBIS World. And from a more intuitive standpoint, with the explosion of energy drink products from Red Bull to Five Hour Energy, it would seem natural that consumers might also want a product that does the alternative.
What it seems that producers are finally noticing is that consumers want a functional product, not just a novelty one.
That IBIS World report is hopeful about the growth of relaxation drinks, noting: "Although the industry is already established and will be growing from a higher base, the potential demand pent-up in the market for relaxation drinks outweighs possible challenges to the industry." As of the end of 2011, they expected that there were around 390 relaxation drinks on the market.
In New York City, I could only track down four.