Originally created 08/05/98

Herb drinks enjoy healthy sales

WHEELING, Ill. -- Sumner Katz slaps on his cowboy hat, slips on his black Versace Nehru-style jacket and begins talking about his Alter Ego.

Alter Ego beverages, that is.

One can try Smartness Enhancer, Body Relaxer, Immunity Extender or Energy Booster -- a line of beverages that claim to not only quench your thirst but promote health for the mind and body through herbal additives.

"We really wanted to create something that has a real benefit to the body, while also tasting good," said Katz, chief executive of Wheeling-based American Marketing Technology Group. "We think we've found that in Alter Ego beverages."

Katz's new line of `nutraceuticals' products are part of a growing wave of drinks that are making herbs and other remedies once known only to health-food store aficionados commonplace on supermarket and drugstore shelves.

Sales of such nutraceuticals for one company alone -- South Beach Beverage Co. of Norwalk, Conn. -- are expected to jump from $15 million last year to $50 million this year, according to company estimates.

Gordana Marikov, a visitor from Lithuania, picked up a can of Go-Go from an Osco drug store in downtown Chicago. The "natural energy" beverage from Go-Go Drinks Inc. of Whitestone, N.Y., contains guarana (gwa-RAN-ah), a product from South America with Siberian ginseng and a caffeine content three times greater than coffee beans.

"It's my first time," Ms. Marikov said as she sipped gingerly from the stylish silver can. "It tastes pretty good."

But do the drinks have any benefit?

Critics say such drinks do not capture nearly the amount of herbs that would show results.

"You have to have a specific dose of a standardized product and you have to take it on a regular basis," said Gail Mahady, a University of Illinois-Chicago professor of medicinal chemistry and pharmacognosy. "A drink with trace amounts (ingested) on an infrequent basis is a novel gimmick to sell the products."

Katz says the drinks aren't meant to replace a diet supplement regimen but to aid in keeping the body and mind fit.

"I believe you can age chronologically, but your body and mind does not have to grow old," said Katz, 62, who is married to a 32-year-old former fitness trainer and has 4-year-old twin girls.

Alter Ego drinks provide 10 percent to 20 percent of the manufacturers' recommended daily balance of each herb. Flavors such as lemon-lime and blackberry are added to disguise the medicinal taste of the herbs.

Smartness Enhancer, for example, carries Siberian ginseng, ginkgo biloba and fo-ti. Ginkgo biloba was found to slightly aid some Alzheimer's patients in a limited study that was published last fall. Body Relaxer contains valerian, once used as a sedative and antispasmodic.

Each flavor also includes fiber and vitamins, although they contain large quantities of crystalline fructose, a highly sweet natural sugar that pushes the calorie count to 130 per 10-ounce bottle. The blends were formulated with the help of Steven Norvil, director of nutrition at the Chicago-based American Longevity Research Institute.

Store shelves are becoming more crowded with such drinks for a good reason: profit potential.

Consumers buy some $5 billion worth of dietary supplements each year -- pills, capsules and teas that are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration as safe and effective but have been touted by some dietitians and occasionally backed by research as beneficial.

Because they are not FDA approved, such supplements do not come with agency warnings as to who should not take them. The FDA has logged more than 2,500 reports of side effects and 79 deaths associated with dietary supplements.

Still, the products sell.

Chicagoan Robb Stone -- who tried a $1.20 can of Alter Ego's Energy Booster with guarana, Siberian ginseng, chromium piccolinate and fo-ti, an ancient herb used by the Chinese before going into battle -- says it's worth the money.

"You pay a little more for it sure, but it tastes OK and at least makes you feel like you're getting a boost," Stone said.

PepsiCo., based in Purchase, N.Y., recently introduced a Josta drink made with guarana berries, while executives at the nation's largest dairy, Dean Foods Inc., based in Franklin Park, Ill., say they are exploring ways to bring nutraceuticals to their products.

Smaller companies also have rushed to cash in on the craze. South Beach and Smucker Quality Beverages Inc., in Chico, Calif. (a division of the Ohio-based jam giant J.M. Smucker Co.), have been expanding their natural and nutraceuticals drinks lines. GalaGen Inc. of Arden Hills, Minn., recently announced a deal to sell its Proventra natural immune components as an ingredient in Lifeway Foods Inc.'s Basic Plus fermented dairy, or kefir, line -- which is supposed to maintain gastrointestinal health.

For decades, Katz's Contact International has made flavorings for many brands of store-brand soft drinks. Katz launched his Alter Ego line under the American Marketing Technology Group after noticing Americans' growing interest in vitamin and dietary supplements.

"People want to have good nutrition nowadays, they're becoming aware of what's good for them," he said. "They want supplement programs, and these are pleasant beverages that are meant to satisfy their need for something that's refreshing but yet has a benefit to them."


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