I Just Want a Normal Drink

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Recently, a balmy spring day left me feeling parched. I needed a beverage—stat!—and had forgotten my water bottle at home. I ducked into a nearby CVS to pick up a drink.

The choices were so overwhelming, I nearly forgot my thirst. The drink aisle included a bevy of the usual thirst-quenching options—and some that looked like they belonged in an apothecary rather than next to the LaCroix. Row upon row of multicolored cans and bottles held drinks with purposes beyond mere hydration and flavor. Some promised to improve my energy, immunity, or gut health. Others claimed to stimulate mind states such as clarity, balance, or calm. Fizzy or flat, juice or tea, high in protein or in probiotics?

Drinks with a purpose, known as “functional beverages,” have become unavoidable in many supermarkets, drugstores, and gas stations across the country. On top of Vitamin Water and traditional energy drinks like Red Bull and Monster, you can find options such as BRĒZ, a supposedly mood-shifting elixir infused with mushrooms and cannabis and SkinTē, a “collagen sparkling tea.” Kin Euphorics, a line of drinks launched by the supermodel Bella Hadid that’s available at Target, sells one meant to boost energy, level up immunity, and make your skin glow. Simply picking out a drink has never been harder.

Drinks have always been about more than taste and hydration—think of coffee, alcohol, and soda. Energy drinks first appeared in stores in the 1960s, before exploding in popularity in the 2000s. Yet the expansion of a drink’s promised effects beyond inebriation or energy is “a little bit newer,” Ernest Baskin, a food-marketing professor at Saint Joseph’s University, told me.

Some of the products I spotted at the pharmacy included an caffeinated shot called Tru Energy and its extra-strength sibling, Tru Power; pastel-colored cans of Recess, a seltzer with magnesium and adaptogens to promote calmness; and Poppi, a soda for gut health. Even the energy drinks are no longer just a few hyper-sweet, hyper-caffeinated options: Newer brands tout health benefits, such as added vitamins, and come in a wider variety of formulations, including seltzers, coffees, and teas.

These functional beverages are booming. By one estimate, the industry is expected to be worth $54 billion in North America alone this year. Grocers report that functional beverages are vying for prime shelf space traditionally occupied by sodas, bottled water, and even alcohol. Encountering the staggering range of supplements, nutrients, and other additives now present in the drink aisle can make choosing a drink feel deeply stressful, more like picking up medication than grabbing a bottle on the go.

Part of the reason functional drinks have exploded is the same reason that there are lots of protein bars and low-sugar snacks: If it sounds healthy, more people will buy it. Americans are “increasingly interested in health,” Baskin said. That’s how you end up with something like Bai—a line of “water beverages” infused with antioxidants and electrolytes—and prebiotic sodas that contain ingredients including live bacteria and fiber. Even Nestlé’s Nesquik, a chocolate drink I enjoyed as a child, comes in a “protein power” version. The fact that these drinks can be sold at a premium has endeared them to stores, Baskin said. A single can of Celsius energy drink or Olipop prebiotic soda costs $3 at Target.

Of course, as in all things wellness, whether any of these products actually does what it says to do is far from guaranteed. Certainly, a drink stuffed with huge amounts of caffeine will be energizing. Others are more suspect. A sparkling water brand called Good Idea goes so far as to claim to balance blood sugar. Safety Shot, packaged in cans labeled with a blue medical cross, is sold as a hangover cure, promising to rapidly lower blood-alcohol levels. (Products marketed as supplements, as opposed to beverages, are less rigorously regulated by the FDA.)

Drink makers have swooped in to capitalize on the ongoing cultural obsession with hydration—one in which Stanley Cups are a must-have item and influencers suggest that clear skin is just a bottle of water away. That has created an opening for more fantastical functional beverages that promise to be a quick fix for all kinds of health concerns—stress, anxiety, insomnia, and unhappiness.

Read: It’s just a water bottle

Recess, one of the drinks I saw at CVS, is positioned as an antidote to a hectic world, helping sippers feel “calm cool collected.” Among the ingredients it highlights are hemp and adaptogens, a category loosely defined as substances that help the body deal with stress. Some drinks claim to promote a shift in mood, equating health with happiness; others, to induce sleep. An energy shot called Magic Mind, touting buzzy ingredients such as nootropics, lion’s-mane mushrooms, and the calming plant ashwagandha, is marketed as a path to a clear mind.

Maybe it’s not surprising that people crave products claiming to bottle some form of respite. Younger adults, to whom most of these drinks are targeted, are drinking less booze but also using more marijuana: They want altered states, if just not in alcohol form. In lieu of happy-hour drinks at a bar, some functional beverages are positioned as something to gather around. One called hiyo describes itself as a “mindful social tonic”; another, called Three Spirit, is meant to “make moods and enhance connections.”

Yet as I stood in the drink aisle, with its shelves of mood elixirs and wellness tonics, these products strangely made me feel worse. Passing on these drinks can seem like a missed opportunity; after all, who doesn’t need some kind of boost these days? Perhaps the appeal of these beverages is less about their actual effect and more about the feeling they sell—that you can take a step toward self-optimization one sip at a time.

I had walked into the CVS just wanting a drink, but being confronted with all those options made me anxious that I didn’t want enough—as if my current state was unacceptable. After spotting a bottle of Kin Euphorics, I pulled up its website and filled out an online quiz: “How do you want to feel?” it asked. Energized, rejuvenated, balanced, or calm? All I wanted to feel was hydrated.

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