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It’s the perfect confluence of social media marketing, a new health consciousness and the ubiquitous historical belief that something powerful-tasting, like castor-oil, must be good for you. We’re talking tiny wellness shots, with sharp-flavoured ingredients that make you screw up your face in shock – which is the latest burgeoning multi-billion-dollar market. Every label contains a smidgen of proven health benefits of some ingredients, though taken together bit necessarily making any difference. No matter. The adherents firmly believe they do – and the placebo effect takes care of the rest. It all ties in with a move away from sugar and the vilification of the once beloved sweetener. Heck, in Cape Town there’s even a clinic to wean people off sugar: the founder (heart transplant pioneer, Chris Barnard’s 39-year-old grand-daughter) Karen Thomson is a former cocaine addict who claims sugar is eight times more addictive than her former poison. The point is, sugar today gets a worse press than Jacob Zuma – with the market having turned off energy drinks and onto health boosters. Videos showing shock on people’s faces as they down prominently branded “shots” have gone viral. So far nobody’s had liver failure – and they remain very sober, believing they’re better off. The creative product originators certainly are. – Chris Bateman
Shots Go On a Health Kick
By Anne Marie Chaker
The newcomer in the beverage case probably won’t quench your thirst and may not even taste that great.
And that is part of the appeal, makers say.
They are called wellness shots, typically packaged in petite 2-ounce bottles and touting benefits such as a spark of energy or a boost to the immune system. With sharp-flavored ingredients such as garlic, habanero pepper and apple-cider vinegar, fans say they offer a quick pick-me-up—but have to be gulped down quickly.
“People want a little punishment with a shot,” says Jeff Church, chief executive of Suja Life, a juice company 31% owned by Coca-Cola . “There is definitely some pain to them.” Suja recently launched three different wellness shots, each with a “hero ingredient,” says Mr. Church. “Energy” features coffee fruit and reishi mushrooms. “Immunity” boasts turmeric and probiotics.
“I’m not taking it for the taste,” says Nikki Brancaccio, a 27-year-old marketing coordinator in New York who buys a case of apple-cider vinegar-based wellness shots every month or so. She describes their flavor as “not yum, but it’s not eww.” She downs a shot before running out the door for work, and thinks they have helped keep winter colds at bay and her overall sense of well-being. “Take first thing in the morning, or with meals, or…whenever you want a tart kick,” say bottles of Ethan’s Tart Cherry apple-cider vinegar shots.
The shots are part of a push by beverage makers to introduce lower-sugar products, as more consumers perceive sugary drinks as unhealthy. “It’s all coming from that vilification of sugar,” says Liz Moskow, culinary director at food consultancy Sterling-Rice Group. For years, sweetness went hand-in-hand with consumers’ idea of refreshment. “People listened to 50 years of soda commercials with people going ‘Ahhhh,’” she says. Trends that followed—from sports drinks to pressed juices—typically had high sugar content, she says.
More recently, lower-sugar beverages promising health and energy benefits have taken off. That has helped to open consumers’ palates to different herbal and botanical flavors. Now with wince-inducing shots, “there’s almost a high that comes from something you perceive as terrible,” says Ms. Moskow.
Traditionally, the $350 million wellness shot business consisted mainly of caffeinated energy shots. “That was hardly the consumer we were after, the truck driver trying to stay awake,” says Alan Murray, chief executive of GoodBelly, which makes probiotic shots. Newer forms, centered around herbal ingredients and feel-good wellness themes, are still small but have grown rapidly in a short time: Sales of immunity-themed shots, for instance, jumped from $1.4 million to $7.5 million in the year ending May 19, according to retail data firm Spins LLC. Cleansing/detox shots more than tripled to $2 million in that time.
Food consultants say it’s a big question whether large numbers of consumers will fit these drinks into their daily routines—and much of that depends on whether they think they are working. “With energy shots, it was easy, because you could feel a burst of energy,” says Gary Hemphill, managing director of research for Beverage Marketing Corp. in New York. “But in other cases, it’s more difficult to measure benefit,” for instance with broad “detoxing” or “immunity building” assertions.
Sophia Kim, a second grade teacher in New York, typically takes a ginger shot in the morning. She says she likes “knowing psychologically that you are receiving nutrients that may be lacking in food.” She braces for the taste. “It is potent,” she says.
Ethan’s brand, which makes vinegar-based shots, upped the wince factor with its recently launched Fire shots, adding garlic juice and onion juice. “I wouldn’t say it’s tough to get down,” says Ethan Hirshberg, founder of Ethan’s Functional Shots. “But you get that feeling, ‘oof.’” We’ve learned not to be too scared to hit people over the head with it a little.”
When Justine Monsul was offering taste samples of her Monfefo brand of ginger and turmeric shots in grocery stores, she was struck by the faces people would make after trying them. “People started crying, or laughing or coughing,” she recalls. She posted the images on Instagram with the hashtag #monfefofaces. “It’s a powerful drink,” she says of the 2-ounce bottles which retail for $4 to $5 each. Monfefo is now in 1,200 stores in 15 states compared with 700 stores in 8 states a year ago, and Ms. Monsul expects to be in at least 3,000 stores next year.
Some consumers take pride in downing a hard-to-swallow shot. Hain Celestial ’s BluePrint juice brand says its recently launched “SuperBoosters” wellness shot line has twice as many social-media posts as the brand’s other lines. “It’s definitely something that people are proud to post,” says Sam Swensen, digital brand manager for BluePrint.
BluePrint has aimed to lower sugar content in recent years with new products including vinegar tonics and flavors such as Watercress Warrior, featuring cucumber, kale and celery, says Emma Frelinghuysen, a vice president at Hain Celestial. The SuperBoosters shots contain between 3 and 7 grams of sugar per 2-ounce shot.
Maureen Estep, a 45-year-old co-owner of a photography studio in Seattle, takes either a homemade shot in the morning made with ingredients such as cayenne pepper and coconut water—or a bottled one by California Juice Co. when she is on the road. “It makes me feel vibrant,” she says.
Write to Anne Marie Chaker at [email protected]
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