Thursday, July 26, 2012

Sports Drinks: Buying academia for market success

Last April, Coca-cola announced it had acquired a majority share of Zico, the number two brand in the estimated $350 million coconut water industry.

However, CNBC’s Darren Rovell argues that while some have called Coke's further investment in Zico the next step to making it the next great beverage, others say coconut water, which has been heavily marketed as nature's sports drink, might be at its peak today.

Rovell further points out, “The two sides of the story can be seen through the eyes of Coke's competitor, Pepsi, which led the charge in 2009 by acquiring Amacoco, Brazil's largest coconut water company. A year later, the company bought a greater piece of O.N.E., the third largest US brand after Vita Coco and Zico.”

However, acquisitions have not always been so auspicious for Pepsi.  It eventually dissolved its partnership with GNC to produce a coconut water brand called Phenom, and GNC has been unloading its inventory and getting out of the market after a 12-month test run. It seems GNC lacked the solid confidence to gain enough market share to make Phenom a profitable venture.

Nonetheless, GNC's retreat has not discouraged other beverage companies from delving into the coconut water business, including Pepsi, which just added three coconut water flavors to its SoBe line. Another beverage company, Rockstar, has unveiled an energy drink with coconut water in it, while Bigelow Tea now produces three tea mixes with coconut water.

According to John Craven, founder and CEO of BevNet, a beverage publisher, forays into the the coco water realm is not slowing down. Craven says roughly 3 in 10 new beverages coming to market today have coconut water as a component.  He believes coconut water is the next big thing.

"It's like in 2002 if you didn't have some sort of energy drink in your stable, you were an idiot," said Craven. "I think people think the same way about coconut water today."

Despite robust growth in the last two years in the US -- sales more than doubled for Vita Coco and grew five-fold for Zico -- Craven says the space still has so much upside.

Craven says that the sports science angle is definitely pushing sales and that Coke's further investment in Zico will do two things: Make it more prominent where it is sold and perhaps lower the price to under $2 (a 14-ounce bottle currently retails for $2.79) due to supply chain efficiencies.

Now, let’s take a look into that sports science angle.

Recently, The British Medical Journal published a scathing investigation into the influence of the sports drink industry over academia, in the interest of marketing the science of hydration.

The lengthy piece by Deborah Cohen documents how, over the past several decades, mandates regarding the necessity of hydrating during exercise entered the public consciousness to the point that they're now thought of as common sense.

For instance Deborah Cohen asks, “So how did the importance of hydration gain traction?”

The first New York marathon, in 1970, inspired a new interest in running. At the time, little scientific attention was given to the role of hydration in runners' performance.  In fact, throughout the 1970s, marathon runners were discouraged from drinking fluids for fear that it would slow them down.

However, an investigation by the BMJ reveals that companies have sponsored scientists, who have gone on to develop a whole area of science dedicated to hydration.

These same scientists advise influential sports medicine organizations, which have developed guidelines that have filtered down to everyday health advice.

These guidelines have influenced the European Food Safety Authority, the EU agency that provides independent advice on the evidence underpinning health claims relating to food and drink. And they have spread fear about the dangers of dehydration.

Hence, the rapid rise in consumption of these sports drinks is hardly surprising, because sports drinks have the marketing and distribution power of multinationals behind them.

PepsiCo bought Gatorade in 2001 and both Coca-Cola and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) have their own sports drinks -- Powerade and Lucozade respectively. The companies are a partner and service provider, respectively, to the London 2012 Olympics.

Cohen further claims that one of the greatest accomplishments of the Gatorade Sports Science Institute, established in 1985, was to convince the public that thirst is an unreliable indicator of dehydration.

There is ample evidence of ways in which the experts who propagated this information were funded or "supported" by sports drinks companies, and while this in itself isn't necessarily wrong, she argues that researchers who have conflicts of interest are not objective enough to be writing guidelines, as is the case here.

There is no good evidence to support the ideas, for example, that "Without realizing, you may not be drinking enough to restore your fluid balance after working out" (Powerade), or that urine color is a reliable indicator of the body's hydration levels.

Cohen concludes with an argument that dehydration has been overblown into the "dreaded disease of exercise," in yet another example of fear mongering for the sake of corporate interest.

Read Deborah Cohen's entire investigative report here.

As for the popularity of the coconut water as a sports drink -- pitched as a better alternative to Gatorade and particularly strong in potassium, which prevents cramping -- has led to some questioning the credibility of its claims.

A consumer group called revealed that Vita Coco and O.N.E. had electrolyte levels on its labeling that didn't match the reality. Vita Coco didn't admit any wrongdoing, but did agree earlier this year to pay $10 million to settle the lawsuit brought by the group.

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  1. Really interesting post!! Boom & Gary of the Vermilon River, Canada.

  2. Never tried coconut water myself. Interesting article and nice pics.

  3. Looks like a very sportic event :0)

  4. Captured so beautifully! Have a happy weekend and happy sky watching.

    Sky shots. at my page, your comment will be greatly appreciated.

  5. Coconut water can be found easily here.
    Great shots!
    Thanks for the visit :)

  6. Great post. I drink coconut water often.

    My entries:
    Moms... Check nyo

  7. Good captures. I love coco water. Happy RT2.

    Mine's here.