‘Adaptogenic’ drinks advertise a booze-free good time. Read this before imbibing.
The Washington Post
By Allyson Chiu and Helen Carefoot
January 13, 2022
Audio is available online.
Hannah Connelly remembers the first time she drank a product from Kin Euphorics, a beverage company specializing in booze-free drinks advertised as alcohol replacements. The contents of the candy-colored cans are infused with “adaptogens,” a broad class of herbs, botanicals and mushrooms that have been associated with enticing effects — including relieving stress and improving mood — that are sometimes linked to the experience of drinking alcohol.
“It was very subtle,” said Connelly, 25, who lives in New York and sampled a Kin Spritz at a pop-up event in the city last year. She likened the sensation to being submerged in water, calling it a “comforting shift in your sensory experience.”
Because consuming alcohol can make her nauseated and later cause “massive bouts of anxiety,” Connelly said Kin beverages have been a welcome substitute.
“It gives you the same social aspect [as alcohol], maybe kind of helps you loosen your inhibitions a bit, but you’re actually feeling better the next day instead of feeling worse,” she said. “That might not be the case for everyone, but I feel like for me, it’s been a win-win.”
With trends such as “Dry January” and being “sober curious” dovetailing with the larger wellness movement, the demand for nonalcoholic beverages is on the rise. In 2021, the dollar sales of such beverages — which include mocktails and alcohol-free beers or wine — increased about 33 percent compared with 2020, according to data provided by NielsenIQ. At the same time, there’s also been growing interest in “functional beverages,” or nonalcoholic drinks that make health claims.
At the intersection of the booze-free lifestyle and functional beverage trends are nonalcoholic concoctions, some of which contain adaptogens, from companies such as Kin Euphorics, Curious Elixirs and Rasasvada, among others.
“BYE BYE BOOZE. HELLO COSMIC WONDER,” reads the all-caps text that greets visitors to Kin Euphorics’ website, which advertises that its drinks have “mood-boosting” or “mind-calming” ingredients. Curious Elixirs describes its offerings as “complex booze-free cocktails infused with adaptogens to help you unwind,” while Rasasvada says it crafts “zero-proof” products with “techniques from herbalism, tea traditions, and traditional eastern medicine.”
While the risk of consuming these types of drinks in moderation is low, experts say it’s important to look beyond clever advertising and promising claims. “Very often there is some science to back these claims, but the science is often not as definitive as we’d like it to be,” said Adam Perlman, a physician and integrative and functional medicine specialist at the Mayo Clinic.
What are adaptogens?
Broadly, the term adaptogen refers to a natural substance that “somehow protects against negative impacts of stress,” said Mikhail Kogan, a geriatrician andmedical director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at George Washington University. Kogan said he uses tinctures of adaptogens himself, including schisandra, ginseng and rhodiola, and has recommended them to patients.
“The idea is these adaptogens help maintain your body and equilibrium,” said Norbert Kaminski, a professor of pharmacology and toxicology and director of the Center for Research on Ingredient Safety at Michigan State University.
Proponents associate certain adaptogens with specific health benefits. For example, they assert that ashwagandha, a shrub, boosts energy and reduces stress; that rhodiola rosea, an herb, decreases cortisol, the body’s primary stress hormone; and that ginseng and licorice root reduce inflammation and fatigue.
The functions associated with the ingredients largely match the advertisinglanguage for nonalcoholic adaptogenic drinks. But the claims associated with products containing adaptogens are often vague, Kaminski said. “The things that they supposedly do often are very difficult to measure. You can’t quantify a lot of this.”
Do adaptogenic products work?
There’s a long history of using herbs, plants and mushrooms in healing capacities, especially in Eastern and Ayurvedic medicine. Adaptogenic beverage companies often draw heavily on that history as well as anecdotal evidence from consumers to support their claims while steering clear of making any medicinal promises.
“Our drinks are designed to be incredibly flavorful and with subtle health benefits,” said John Wiseman, founder of Curious Elixirs. “Unlike many new brands that are overpromising, we only communicate that Curious Elixirs will help you unwind.”
But while some scientific evidence suggests there are benefits to consuming adaptogens, experts said much of the research involved animal studies, and that the few human trials were limited by small sample sizes.
“Even though there’s a trial looking at ashwagandha or a particular mushroom that maybe has a particular physiologic effect, that doesn’t mean it will necessarily translate into a clinical effect,” Perlman said.
Curious Elixirs’s Wiseman said that in Western society “many of these ingredients are less well known and are not yet sufficiently studied.” He called for more research, especially in the West.
Jen Batchelor, co-founder and CEO of Kin Euphorics, said the adaptogens in her company’s products have “countless case studies” to show their efficacy in helping the mind and body deal with stress. She pointed to a National Geographic article detailing research suggesting that rhodiola rosea, which is used in two Kin drinks, could help athletes with physical and mental stress.
Still, experts noted, the amount of adaptogens in products also matters. Perlman said some companies cite studies and say, “‘Oh, look at this, it has this particular effect.'” But, he added, the question is, “is it in the product at that dose?” If the dose is too small, customers might be drinking “an expensive flavored water and not really getting the adaptogenic effect.”
Labels on many adaptogenic drink containers list the ingredients, but don’t always include specific amounts of each. In addition, the effects and potency of plant-based ingredients can vary widely depending on where and how they were grown, when they were harvested, and what parts of the plant are used.
When asked about the ingredients in Rasasvada products, founder and CEO Connor W. Godfrey said they were natural substances that “have been used by people globally since time immemorial to strengthen their minds, bodies and souls.” But, he added, that company’s products “are not intended to be used as medicine nor are they designed to treat any disease.”
Experts said it’s also important to consider the power of the placebo effect on any potential physical or mental reactions to adaptogens. “I’m a big believer in the placebo effect,” Kaminski said. “You can suggest things to people and they will actually feel like that’s happening.”
How do adaptogenic drinks compare to consuming alcohol?
Although Kin Euphorics advertises itself as a booze alternative, Batchelor said that “Kin never set out to be a 1:1 replacement for alcohol, nor is this our aim as a company today.” The drinks, she said, were not formulated with adaptogens to replicate the feeling of being drunk., nor is the company claiming that its ingredients can create a drunken state.
Laura Silverman, who has been sober for 14 years and runs the websites “Booze Free in DC” and “Zero Proof Nation,” said that when she turns to a nonalcoholic product, it isn’t to mimic the experience of drinking alcohol. What she’s looking for are options that taste good without the negative side effects. If something contains an added health benefit, she added, that’s a bonus.
“It’s like a sophisticated alternative that you don’t have to worry about having a hangover with,” Silverman said.
Experts also see a positive side to these drinks. Adaptogens “do not exhibit abuse potential or dependence, or the other social problems we see with alcohol,” said Tam Phan, assistant professor of clinical pharmacy at the University of Southern California’s School of Pharmacy.
Are there any risks to consuming these drinks?
Much of the risk of consuming adaptogens depends on the dosage, Kaminski said. “Anything that we’re exposed to at too high an amount can lead to adverse effects.”
Although experts say the typical amount of adaptogens in one serving of these drinks probably isn’t enough to pose serious health risks, people with certain medical conditions or who are taking medications, such as antidepressants, should be careful. For example, Kogan said people who are diabetic should avoid taking ginseng, because it can lower blood sugar. Similar caution should be exercised by people who are pregnant, breastfeeding or family planning because adaptogens can affect hormones. Kogan also said adaptogens aren’t meant to be used continuously and work best when taken for a set period of time. He noted that he uses them especially during periods of high stress.
Some adaptogenic beverage containers carry warning labels acknowledging these risks and companies give guidelines for consumption on their websites. For example, an FAQ page for Curious Elixirs warns pregnant people not to consume its products with ashwagandha. Wiseman said the herb has properties that may induce a miscarriage in large doses.
Experts also recommended examining ingredient labels. “Someone who cares about their health and wants to be careful about what they put in their body, I think the devil’s in the details,” said Pieter Cohen, an associate professor of medicine at the Cambridge Health Alliance who studies supplements. Cohen encouraged customers to use an online screening tool for assessing supplement safety created by the Department of Defense to evaluate the ingredients in drinks.
“At the end of the day,” Perlman said, “we all need to be experts on us, and take every claim with a grain of salt, particularly if it’s coming from any company that’s manufacturing the product.”