What's Functional About Added Herbs and Nutrients?

| May/June 2000

When Earl Lay tried his first herbal soft drink last year, it worked so well that it scared him. The thirty-six-year-old hospital security officer and reformed espresso addict was on a camping trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota. After a seven-hour drive and too little sleep the night before, he was ready for a pick-me-up.

“The gas station didn’t have my usual brand of iced tea, but I saw this stuff I’d been curious about,” he recalls. The “stuff” was SoBe Energy, one of a line of herb-containing soft drinks in 20-ounce lizard-decorated bottles. It contained guarana, yohimbe, and arginine.

Lay polished off half the bottle before checking the ingredients. One of the flavorings was orange juice concentrate. “Every time I touch anything with orange in it, it messes me up something fierce. I get pounding headaches,” he says.

Lay was mad at himself that he had consumed something so potentially troublesome. And he thinks that the adrenaline rush that his anger produced combined with the stimulants in the soft drink to produce an unexpected and worrisome “buzz.”

When he and his friends got to the campsite, “I felt like my hairs were shooting off sparks,” he recounts. “I couldn’t burn off the energy I had. And people could feel my body heat four feet away.” Lay thinks that he didn’t have his usual bad reaction to the orange extract, and he now drinks the product as an alternative to caffeinated tea.

Lay certainly isn’t alone in being intrigued and attracted by products called “functional foods,” a term coined for beverage or food items with added nutrients or other ingredients meant to influence health. In fact, looking at just the beverage section of this segment of the natural products industry can boggle the mind. There are stimulants, sedatives, and drinks that claim to boost brain power. There are slim cans spiked with aloe vera and nettles to chase away hangovers, or echinacea and schisandra to fend off colds. There are even aphrodisiac beverages. Candy may be dandy to put your sweetie in the mood, but one manufacturer claims that a 20-ounce bottle of black cherry-flavored sugar water spiked with yohimbe, damiana, and muira puama is quicker. (It doesn’t yet rhyme, but they’re probably working on it.)

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