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Illustration of a beverage aisle in a store.
So-called “functional” beverages are meant to make our lives better. Can they really?
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How Big Beverage poured empty promises down our throats

The American beverage aisle is overflowing, with no sign of letting up.

Melinda Fakuade is an associate editor for Vox, working mainly with The Goods and the Culture team. She is from New York and her writing has focused on culture, entertainment, and consumerism.

The fall of my first semester of college, I discovered kombucha. I would grab a glass bottle of the fermented tea from the school store and drink it in my room after class. I savored each drop, convinced by its gut health promise that I was healing myself from the torment of dining hall food. Evidently, it was a trend that had taken a bit to reach me on the East Coast. A friend of mine from California had already been long acquainted with the concept, so much so that she learned to cultivate the Scoby — the symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast needed to kick off kombucha — in her dorm closet. If I thought about the process for too long, it made me squirm, but in my mind it was the cost of health, so I kept chugging along.

The typical grocery aisle is oversaturated with an endless number of beverage options. Americans have no lack of choices in this arena, where every brand makes some implicit promise to would-be consumers. They say “drink me:” our product can make you healthy or thin or in control or smart or beautiful or interesting or some combination of attributes that can’t exactly be quantified. We can sip our way to better selves, if we only purchase the right thing.

In the same way capitalism has convinced so many of us in our professional and personal lives, there is no such thing as rest or leisure — purpose can only be found through work and function. At this cultural moment, drinking for drinking’s sake is considered a waste of time — people want their beverages to do something. As a result, we’ve created an entire category of “functional” beverages that claim to have the ability to make us better in every single way, from our brains to our beauty. Beverages must play an active role in our lives, and assist us in achieving self-determined goals.

These drinks help us in other ways, too, telegraphing to the world that we’re health-conscious, with their symbolic power as potent as their health benefits. Through a variety of aesthetics, claims, and cool factors, beverage brands are able to attract buyers, and often can convert them into longtime believers. Much of the time, it’s unclear if these ready-to-drink beverages can actually do what they say they will, but that doesn’t really matter. We buy in and hope for the best anyway, as we’ve always done.

In America, our unquenchable thirst begins in childhood. The current state of the beverage space cannot be separated from the sly marketing campaigns that were waged on our brains before they were even fully developed. We know that we’ve been poisoned by candy-colored promises, by corn syrup, and by a faulty food pyramid that lasted decades.

Generation after generation of consumers has been inundated with food and beverage products shined up with celebrity and cartoon endorsements, but shrouded in confusion when it came to actual nutritional information. The 1980s were dominated by children’s programs that, due to marketing deregulation, were essentially just advertisements. With no barriers and impressionable minds tuned in, television shows and commercials became aggressive in their pursuit of children’s purchasing power. The Children’s Television Act in 1990 sought to mitigate this onslaught, but the damage had already been done, though today more children’s programming is required to be explicitly educational.

Andrea Hernandez, a food and beverage trend analyst and writer of Snaxshot, an industry newsletter, tells me that the effects of past marketing efforts have been more impactful than we ever could have predicted. “Our generation grew up at a time where our parents were being sold on convenience, and not necessarily the healthiest thing,” she said. Often, products that were pushed as healthy were deceptively not. Consumers gladly gave into the illusion. For example, sales of Vitaminwater — marketed as a healthy choice, with “vitamin” right in the name — were sky-high in the early 2000s, jumping from $350 million in annual sales to over $1 billion when Coca-Cola acquired the brand in 2007. The beverage actually has 32 grams of sugar per bottle, which is only 50 percent less sugar than a can of Coke. Although that’s better in some ways than drinking a soda, its misleading marketing relies on the idea that drinkers are just having fortified water.

It’s a strategy that worked in the early 2000s, but over time, the smoke and mirrors became more obvious. Consumers eventually caught on; more health information was accessible on the internet, and new children’s health initiatives began across the country. Instead of changing their formulas, brands saw their opportunity to step in and change the narrative about their products. “There was money to be made in catering to that unfulfilled niche, which was, ‘We’re looking for better options,’’ Hernandez said. With the rise of the internet, health consciousness began to increase, and consumers began to look for brands that would meet their new standards.

This shift meant an impending breakup with a longtime staple product: soda. Sales started to fall off around 2005, despite Americans’ enduring allegiance to fizz and caffeine. Consumers were interested in a change, and the market responded with a larger focus on sparkling waters. La Croix, the sparkling water brand that began in the 1980s as a counter to fancy European water brands, became wildly popular with millennials by the mid-2010s, and darted between lowbrow and highbrow consumer tastes. Eventually, Big Beverage released a slew of other sparkling drinks to fill demand. In the process, La Croix became the cool thing it stood against, but then was obliterated by copycats. They paved the way, but couldn’t come along for the ride.

Now there’s dozens of status sparkling waters, all with their own cult followings. According to findings from 2015 to 2018, tap, bottled, carbonated, uncarbonated, and bottled water accounted for more than half of non-alcoholic beverage consumption by adults in the United States. In 2020, the global sparkling water market was valued at $29.7 billion, and it is expected to grow by almost 13 percent by 2028.

One recently launched brand called United Sodas is a minimalist, Technicolor collection of caffeine-free, low-calorie carbonated water drinks. They stray from traditional soda flavors, and instead sell unusual picks like toasted coconut and blackberry jam. Liquid Death, a particularly cult-y water brand with highly devoted fans, claims it will “murder” the thirst of its drinker, and specifically carbonates its product at a similar level to beer. Gimmicks and twists like these can be easily added to sparkling water, and entice consumers to try it out, without feeling too guilty about calories or sugar. Instead of leaving their premises ambiguous, beverage brands now operate by being extremely transparent with consumers. However, it’s still a kind of diversion to entice buyers and sway them to pick their product over another.

Dairy didn’t make it out of this beverage shift unscathed either. A steady decline in milk consumption in the 2010s led to Dean Foods, the country’s largest dairy processor, to file for bankruptcy by 2019. The growing popularity of alternative milk options proved that Americans weren’t closed off to new ideas, especially ones that were considered healthier. Plant-based options like almond, coconut, and oat milk sales grew by 61 percent between 2012 and 2017.

With water on the rise and dairy out of the way, the spotlight was primed for the ever-expanding beverage market to fulfill new needs and niches. But while the current state of the American beverage aisle might appear to be an oasis of options, in some ways it’s a mirage, too. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines sugar-sweetened beverages, or SSBs, as including but not limited to “regular soda (not sugar-free), fruit drinks, sports drinks, energy drinks, sweetened waters, and coffee and tea beverages with added sugars.”

Increasing concerns about health might encourage us to try and make better choices, but a lot of the market harbors SSBs in sheep’s clothing. Regardless, Big Beverage knows how easily enamored Americans are with quick fixes. Most problems cannot be solved with a sip of the perfect concoction, and yet, we continue to put our faith into bottles. The industry gambled: What if beverages were presented not only as speed boosts to health and wellness, but as extensions of our selves and our worth? The bet paid off. Even though the pandemic hurt disposable income worldwide, the food and beverage industry was still projected to grow.

In 2016, PepsiCo bought KeVita, the probiotic drink brand, for over $200 million. The soft drink giant was cashing in on the health-conscious shift in consumer interest that was beginning to take hold across the country. The beverage space was changing rapidly in a variety of ways that were bigger than just kombucha. It was becoming clear that wellness was important to customers on a large-scale, lifestyle-change level. Consumers came to realize the failings of the first iteration of ready-to-drink beverages. The -ades, juice pouches, diet colas, and their ilk could not sustainably remain en vogue, not while obesity rates rose and soda taxes began to be proposed.

Consumers absorbed these new beverage trends, although they can’t be entirely reduced to that. As Hernandez explains, these aren’t simply trends. She calls it the “Goopification” of longstanding native or Indigenous cultural traditions. “You start to see whitewashing and the mass appeal of these wellness ‘trends’ that really have existed for a while,” she said. “What’s novel is the way that we’re being sold back that knowledge at a premium.” Yerba mate, a caffeine-containing plant from South America used in Indigenous traditions, has been trendy before, but is currently having a resurgence with young people as a coffee alternative. The biggest yerba mate brand, Guayakí, has used event marketing in the past to push the product to students. Now, competitors like Yerbaé sparkling water use brand ambassadors and fun, colored packaging to attract customers, giving yerba mate a modern update.

But the fact remains that American consumers view them as trends, and nobody wants to miss out on the next big thing. KeVita came in at the perfect time: The gut health market in the United States is projected to be worth almost $6 billion by 2024.

The company’s co-founder and former CEO, Bill Moses, went on to create the hipster-y Flying Embers, which sells both hard seltzer and hard kombucha. Flying Embers is also capitalizing on another functional wellness trend: mushrooms, which my colleague Terry Nguyen reported on back in April. The brand currently has two mushroom beer options. Beverages can be an accessible way to experiment with sometimes-intimidating wellness movements — from ingredients like mushrooms to probiotics to apple cider vinegar regimens. Bragg, the apple cider vinegar brand, has responded to ACV’s newfound popularity as a health aid by releasing “refresher” prebiotic drinks.

Not all wellness trends are appropriative, exactly — some are much more about vibes. That means packaging matters, big time. The physical look of a beverage can make or break its consumer appeal.

You’ve probably scrolled past Kin on your social media feeds before. The brand produces “euphoric” readymade non-alcoholic drinks and aperitifs that are housed in gorgeous cans and bottles. However, their dreamy aesthetic comes at a cost. Kin’s latest calming creation, Lightwave, involves ingredients like reishi mushroom, birch bark extract, L-tryptophan, and runs $27 for four 8-ounce cans of the stuff. Brands know that consumers will pay a pretty penny for products that look great on Instagram. Look at the ’60s and ‘70s typeface trend that has taken over. Attractive products are more fun to show off online.

Other so-called “functional” beverages tend to have softer, calmer branding that is meant to mirror how the consumer will feel drinking it, and vary from abstract to minimalist vibes.

Alicia Kennedy reported for Eater in 2019 that functional beverages like Recess, a hemp-based drink brand, were “typically dressed in soothing pastels that set them apart from the bold primary colors of a Coca-Cola or Red Bull ... exemplars of millennial-focused branding, with an Instagram-friendly aesthetic that targets overworked young women seeking out brief moments of ‘self-care’ as an alternative to traditional medicine.” They’d sprung up, she explained, in the “wake of the so-called anxiety economy.” According to information from Recess, retail sales went up 60 percent since the start of the pandemic, a time in which many consumers might have felt they needed extra help to calm down.

It’s not just branding though; the wellness buzzwords contained in each can and bottle are paramount, even if they’re not always super legible to consumers. Ingredients like nootropics, which are defined as anything that aids the brain to focus, and adaptogens, which are defined as natural chemicals or herbs that help the body adapt to stressors, have been gaining traction. There’s a sugar-free, zero-calorie drink called “Confidence” that claims to give its drinker exactly that, through an adaptogenic vitamin blend meant to lower stress and anxiety levels. Two of its ingredients, GABA and 5-HTP, sound more like parts of a cyborg than something you’d typically find in a beverage. The brand calls the product “the future of feeling,” but it feels like all of these new wave drinks have the same aim: We’re looking to chill the hell out.

“I’ve talked to a lot of people that get into CBD drinks and then they feel disappointed because they’re like, ‘I don’t know what I should have felt.’ There’s a lot of vagueness,” Hernandez said. For all the commotion about nootropics, for example, caffeine is actually considered a nootropic. “There’s a lot of confusion as to what adaptogens and nootropics are. A lot of people tell me, ‘I don’t even know what an adaptogen is.’ They’re just going for pretty packaging,” she said.

Americans demand options; we believe it to be our right. The beverage aisle is clear evidence of this. The sheer number of sugars, electrolytes, and caffeine options we have access to grows more overwhelming every year. Yet, the availability of choice has not made it any easier to choose what to drink, or to sustain our access to those options. Almond milk is a case study in what happens when an alternative beverage option loses its original mission. At this point, it is not that much more sustainable than cow’s milk, due to high demand and the amount of water the process demands. Táche, a pistachio milk brand, comes in cutesy, mint green packaging and says it uses 75 percent less water to grow an ounce of pistachios than it takes to produce the same amount of almonds (in California, to grow that ounce of almonds, the process demands 97 gallons of water). It is meant to be a product solution to a product that was also supposed to be a solution. Many beverages are like this. They attempt to fix the errors of previous beverages, but inevitably another beverage appears to try and outdo them, too.

It’s clear that this new class of beverages is not that different from the old kind. The invention of soda led to the invention of diet sodas. The invention of sugar-sweetened beverages led to the invention of sugar-free beverages. Popular use of coffee leads to popular use of caffeine alternatives, and the popular use of alcohol leads to the popular use of alcohol-free drinks and alcohol alternatives. Sustainability issues lead us to look for alternatives, which eventually we also make unsustainable. Beverages beget other beverages. It’s a liquid ouroboros.

Consumers increasingly want beverages that won’t leave them feeling wired, like a Red Bull, but wouldn’t be as inappropriate as a mid-workday margarita. These in-betweeners are taking over the market, and they toe the line between product and religion. Faith fuels a lot of beverage popularity — if consumers believe it is helping them, then on some level it probably will. Holistically angled ingredients can be marketed with ease in direct opposition to the sugary, additive-laden choices of the past. We think these beverages can change our lives — fix our bodies, our minds, and our feelings. Every buzzword and trend entices us, like “diet” and “zero” did before. It all feels a little bit like the “organic” and “superfood” label booms of the early 2010s, which only continue to grow — lest we forget that period of time when acai and coconut water drinks were everywhere. Sure, this stuff is supposed to be good for you, but how and why exactly is a bit harder to answer on a demonstrable level.

At the end of the day, we only technically need water to survive. But instead of admitting that drinks can just be fun, we invented new reasons to consume them. Utilitarianism works sometimes in the beverage space — remember Soylent? But finding something to fix in ourselves, even when there’s nothing broken, may be proof that something else is broken. We’ve all been convinced that the enjoyment of empty calories should be shameful, not celebratory.

The previous beverage market has given way to this one, and like its predecessors, the current beverage market will also be dismantled. It’s a cycle we have no intention of stopping. This new market will ultimately produce a new future market, as we invent more reasons to drink and new health trends emerge. But we are chasing a high that we cannot replicate without bending over backward to market beverages new and old. There’s nothing inherently wrong with consumer patterns when it comes to imbibing, but there’s an element of denial present. Nobody wants to admit that drinking something can just be functionally useless fun. The market has directly responded to that consumer denial.

Beverages have become just another way for people to signal allegiance to a certain lifestyle or to tell ourselves that we are working toward something better. But our faith in the beverage industry has mostly survived so long because we are in denial about what gives us pleasure. Instead of collectively admitting that we love drinks — on a social and emotional level that is hard to compare to anything else — we would rather fool ourselves into believing that drinks can fix us.


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