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Missouri health officials concerned by 'downer drinks'

Monday, March 15, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

KANSAS CITY — At the 7-Eleven in Brookside, one of the latest entries in the beverage wars sits behind a refrigerator door between the beer and soda sections.

Appropriate, given the product.

Drank is a sweet, purplish potion touted to deliver "extreme relaxation" this side of liquor. On shelves it tends to be crowded out by the enemy — rows upon shiny rows of energy drinks.

The new beverage category some call "downer drinks" raises a cultural question only the marketplace can answer: In stressful times, are we more in want of midday jolts of caffeine or non-alcoholic tonics that mellow us? Or both — one to battle the other?

Close to the cashier, a box of 2-ounce shots of iChill — laced with melatonin and valerian root — reveals another problem for the calm-in-a-bottle niche. The warning label hardly sets minds at ease:

"Do not take if you are pregnant or nursing. Do not take if you are under age 12. If you have any known allergies or are under medical supervision seek the advice of your health care professional prior to using this product. Do not take when operating machinery or driving a vehicle."

With catchy names like RelaxZen, Vacation in a Bottle and Blue Cow (think Red Bull's alter ego), anti-energy drinks for now are hard to find on local shelves, but at least 20 brands can be bought online.

Their emergence worries some health officials troubled by a culture that, with a twist of the cap, veers back and forth in the fast lane only to crave shut-eye at night.

Noting that melatonin and some herbs can be effective in helping people rest, "these drinks are new, they're unregulated and you can grab them at the convenience store whether or not you're on medication that could trigger a reaction," said Susan Lewis, president of Mental Health America of the Heartland in Kansas City, Kan.

"The mechanisms by which they work are different from one drink to another. But how's a teenager to know the properties of brand XYZ versus ABC?"

To those who make the stuff, relaxation beverages are a sensible next step in the stampede of "functional" drinks — products that claim to do more than satisfy thirst.

"I'm the godfather — the grandfather, so to speak — who kicked off the relaxation category," said Peter Bianchi, chief executive officer of Houston-based Innovative Beverage Group Inc., and maker of Drank.

"I wanted to get up in the morning and drink Red Bull to get me going and at the end of the day go home and just relax," he said. "Everybody being turned on to this sees the benefit in a healthy alternative to drinking a bottle of Jack Daniel's or reaching for the medicine cabinet."

Others see downer drinks as a logical elixir for tough economic times. If Monster, 5-hour Energy and Starbucks were the rage in the go-go years, might the recession generation reach for Mary Jane's Relaxing Soda?

Mary Jane's founder, Matt Moody, 28, expects $5 million in sales this year. His decision to jump on the functional-beverage train came after he was laid off in January 2009 from his job developing dietary supplements.

Needing income with his first child on the way, Moody thought back to his college days in Hays, Kan. At the nutrition store where he worked, he sprinkled kava into a soft drink and encouraged his friends to try it.

From the plant-based additive they got a buzz — "a calming sensation, you definitely feel it," he said — that some compared to the effects of mild marijuana. Thus the name — Mary Jane's.

"The name just stuck. We're not marketing to stoners," Moody said. "You can have one in the middle of the day and feel more focused, not tired. ...

"We recommend no more than two bottles in a day. That's enough."

The Food and Drug Administration, while leery of overusing kava, has approved valerian root as a food additive. The agency lists rose hips and other downer-drink ingredients as "generally recognized as safe," or GRAS.

No such approval has been granted melatonin, a natural hormone, when it is added to food or drinks.

"The FDA can take regulatory action if it determines that the substance is not truly GRAS for the intended use," said agency spokesman Michael Herndon. "At present, we have not done this with melatonin in so-called relaxation drinks."

Drank, containing melatonin and considered the leader of the upstarts, also has been questioned for its marketing and purple packaging. Health officials in Dallas recently accused Drank of trying to capitalize on a hip-hop trend of mixing prescription cough syrup with soda and other sweets to produce an illicit high.

Company head Bianchi, who said he modeled his marketing on Red Bull's success, denied targeting kids: "The appeal among people from 18 to 25 immediately crossed over to the parents of 18-year-olds. Mom wound up saying, 'Why do you need to be relaxed? I'm the one working all day and paying the bills.'"

With the beverage line still searching for its identity, drink makers use radically different approaches to define their niche.

The makers of Dream Water, for example, target adults struggling to get to sleep. Take a half-hour before bed and, according to the label, the blend of melatonin, tryptophan and gamma-amino butyric acid will let you "dream responsibly."

Teresa Hamm, a restless sleeper for 15 years, recently came upon Dream Water in a New York drugstore and gave it a whirl. She was out in 20 minutes.

"You kind of just fade," said Hamm, 30, a psychologist who favors the "Lullaby Lemon" variety. "I've tried prescription drugs. I've tried meditation, exercise. This is life-changing for me."

For many others, however, taking sleep aids only sets in motion an often unending cycle of dependency — and the younger you start, the worse it can get, said Ann Romaker, director of the St. Luke's Health System Sleep Disorders Centers.

"Melatonin is not something you want to take any time of day," as it is naturally generated in humans only in darkness, she said. Its receptors lurk in every bodily tissue, "and we don't know for sure what all those receptors do."

The best route to a restful night? Try exercising between 4 and 7 p.m., Romaker said.

Though some of the beverages report 200 and 300 percent gains in sales the past year, relaxation drinks may never really take hold — partly because few consumers would drink throughout the day.

"I think more people prefer alert and energized," said Jeff Klineman, an editor at the industry journal Beverage Spectrum.

Or they turn to the centuries-old custom of boozing.

Self-described "funtrepreneur" Travis Hollman says he thinks he knows what catches on.

Having invented a toy gun that shoots marshmallows, he was at a trade show a few years back when a man in the next booth convulsed and needed medical attention for jitters brought on by too much caffeine, Hollman said.

So Hollman came up with Vacation in a Bottle, eschewing melatonin for the amino acid L-theanine. By marketing a less potent, more recreational drink, he said even children can gulp away.

"Relaxation has nothing to do with sleeping," he said. "But this market is still evolving. Nobody knows who'll win out. Let the world decide. We could be gone a year from now and just be left with sleep aids."


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