Last year, the U.S. market for energy drinks stood at $13.4 billion; according to retail intelligence service Mintel, that’s a 5.6 percent increase over the previous year. Coupled with cold brew coffee’s increasing popularity and growing sales for functional beverages of various types, it’s easy to suggest that consumers are seeking beverages that can provide both physical and mental fuel throughout the day.
But within that rise in functional drinks — which contain familiar callouts to clean ingredients, low sugar, and steady caffeine levels — a handful of startups, some taking their cues from Silicon Valley, have been asking a different question: What if you could hack your brain?
Enter nootropics, sometimes called “smart drugs,” a niche but rising segment of the supplements industry that is extending its reach into beverage via shots and energy drink alternatives that promise consumers better focus, better memory, and improved overall mental function. Buoyed by a global brain health supplement market that is expected to reach $11.6 billion by 2024, brands of this type see an opportunity to disrupt the larger functional and energy drink sets.
“Nootropics” is typically used as a catchall term for a large variety of different drugs, adaptogens, and synthetic compounds that deliver users some form of cognitive benefit. Some, like tea-derived L-theanine, have been widely known and used in beverages for decades. But the promise of boosting brain function has helped inspire a growing subculture of consumers who experiment with different compounds and “stacks,” the name for the combinations of different nootropics that deliver specific effects and benefits when they interact. On Reddit, the r/nootropics community currently has more than 156,000 subscribers, offering information and discussion of different nootropics and how they can be paired for optimal effect.
Charles Lankau, co-founder of Synapse, an early stage “natural cognitive boost” drink, first discovered nootropics through the online biohacking community as a high schooler. According to Lankau, while trends and techniques within the biohacking community vary — covering everything from meditation and breathing exercises to cybernetic implants — the core concept is about “measuring” and tracking physical and mental changes in order to document how different drugs or exercises affect the individual.
“Throughout high school and college when I was preparing for exams, tests, papers, and assignments I wanted to get the most out of my brain and perform at my highest possible level and I found nootropics to be a great way to improve that performance,” Lankau told BevNET.
These early adopters are forming the initial consumer base for an emerging RTD nootropic beverage market. Synapse launched earlier this year, while functional beverage company LifeAid has seen sales boom for its nootropic-infused FocusAid line.
According to LifeAid co-founder and president Aaron Hinde, FocusAid is available in more than 10,000 stores nationwide, including Whole Foods, Sprouts, Vitamin Shoppe, H-E-B, and Safeway. The line has become the company’s second top-selling SKU despite receiving little marketing support to date, although the company plans to put more of its budget toward the line in the near future.
“We know people are looking for increased focus, for that flow state or ‘being in the zone,’” Hinde told BevNET. “We’ve taken more of a natural approach, giving them nootropics for the brain function and a mild dose of natural caffeine, which is not going to burn you out with adrenal fatigue years down the line. I think we’re looking at what people are trying to achieve by drinking energy drinks and delivering it to them in a much more healthy way.”
FocusAid utilizes a stack of nootropics which are largely popular with those in the subculture. The product uses neurotransmitter GABA (naturally produced in the brain and regulates calmness, sleep, and alpha brainwaves), Alpha GPC (memory formation and learning), acetyl-L-carnitine (alertness), and rhodiola rosea (stress relief) in addition to more traditional energy and wellness drink ingredients like ginseng, B, C, and D vitamins, yerba mate, and caffeine (45 mg). Hinde said the blend gives users a stronger but more consistent energy boost that’s suitable for staying on the ball at work without a crash.
“The ready-to-drink format makes the product so much more accessible and mainstream for consumers,” said LifeAID CEO Orion Melehan. “As we did with FitAid where we focused on niche channels and built it out to the mass market, that’s essentially what we’re doing with the pioneers of this nootropics trend — which we think is here to stay, we don’t think it’s a fad. We’re branching out into more mainstream consumers.”
Regulation and Efficacy
In 2016, the American Medical Association issued a warning about what it saw as a rise in self-administered nootropics, adopting an official stance discouraging their use.
“While prescription stimulants carry real risks, they do not make people smarter,” the association wrote in a press release. “The available evidence suggests the cognitive effects of prescription stimulants appear to be highly variable among individuals, are dose-dependent, and limited or modest at best in healthy individuals.”
On the supplement side, the nootropic space still lacks significant oversight, sometimes running afoul of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) over use of certain compounds, such as piracetam. But companies can avoid regulation by marketing unscheduled products as “research chemicals.” Nootropic-based products have also received criticism over efficacy, and been subjected to studies on potential adverse effects. At least one supplement company, HVMN, had to admit its products were less effective than coffee.
Beverage brands working in this space have largely taken a more cautious approach before going to market. All LifeAid products are reviewed by an attorney specializing in FDA regulations prior to launch, with an eye towards avoiding unsubstantiated functional claims. According to Lakau, Synapse went through several formulations before deciding to drop all synthetic ingredients and use only natural nootropics in order to ensure safety for its consumers and compliance with FDA regulations.
“There is gray area with synthetic products being marketed out there that fall outside of FDA regulations that maybe they should be made illegal,” Melehan said. “Synthetic substances are always one step ahead of the regulation. But we don’t dabble in anything too exotic.”
According to Hinde, the tech industry has played a significant role in the rise of nootropics. LifeAid, which is based in California, has seen FocusAid take off among office workers, gamers, and other tech sector consumers.
“Here in Santa Cruz, we’re 30 minutes from the Silicon Valley and the use of nootropics and these kind of smart drugs really became popular back in 2010 or 2011,” Hinde said, citing the spike around the release of the film Limitless, in which a struggling writer discovers a wonder drug that exponentially increases his brain power in a matter of days. “The thought of having some kind of a smart drug or concoction that can get you in the flow state is very appealing to all of us high achievers.”
Outside of the tech space, brands see ample opportunity to leverage the RTD format to make gains with other demographic groups. According to Hinde, FocusAid has also proven popular among college students seeking more effective study aids, as well as fitness enthusiasts who are looking for alternatives to pre-workout beverages that contain artificial ingredients or high 300 mg doses of caffeine.
Lankau said he believes nootropics and beverages like Synapse can provide an alternative to prescription medications or caffeine as a study aid for college students.
In an email to BevNET, a spokesperson for shot brand BrainJuice said that it is working to branch out and connect with more mainstream consumers by emphasizing how the product can help with everyday tasks from household chores to office work.
“As category awareness grows, we think brain function beverages will branch out from the niche markets of biohackers and natural food enthusiasts to become everyday household purchases sold in a variety of conventional channels, including grocery stores, national chains, and convenience stores,” they said. “BrainJuice has positioned itself to be synonymous with brain wellness and is at the leading edge of the category expansion.”
While the team at Synapse recognizes their product is niche, the goal is to go wide and large. The company has brought on former Coca-Cola Company VP of category marketing, strategy and innovation Shouvik Ganguly as a founder to help bring the brand to market. Ganguly told BevNET that Synapse is working to grow the business through e-commerce before launching at natural and C-store retailers. The company is also considering college campuses and gyms, though the average Synapse consumer is a young professional in their mid-to-late 20’s.
“Our consumers are the people who will stand in a queue overnight for new Nike shoes or a new iPhone. Granted, you could just get it online in 72 hours, that’s the typographic of these folks,” Ganguly said. “And the demographics of these folks is that they do have some money, they’re not all students, but they do tend to be younger.”
Ganguly said he aims to position Synapse as a leader in the nootropics space and is investing heavily in consumer education efforts via social media and sampling. The main goal for the company, he said, is to make the case to consumers that nootropics provide superior energy to caffeine. The brand is still in a pilot phase within retail with roughly 30 accounts in the Southeast, but the company is in negotiations with distributors to begin building out a footprint by the end of the year.
While FocusAid is widely available thanks to its parent company’s larger platform, many nootropic beverage brands remain in limited distribution and sell their product primarily through ecommerce and supplement shops. But as placement in natural, c-stores and conventional channels increases, brands hope consumers will recognize the benefit to brain boosters, finally giving them the slice of the energy pie they’ve been aiming for.
“We have the potential here as leaders in the category to really take a leadership position in the focus category and take market share from the energy drink category at the same time,” Melehan said.