You might have seen them in your local convenience store, with colorful packaging and catchy names: iChill, Mary Jane's Relaxing Soda, Drank, Vacation in a Bottle, and Blue Cow.
They're "relaxation" drinks, the newest addition to the beverage industry. Unlike beverages that guarantee an energy boost, relaxation drinks promise to help people unwind.
With packaging that's clearly marketed to young people -- palm trees and sunsets that suggest spring break; Facebook and Twitter featured on the products' Web sites; a name that invokes marijuana -- the drinks are raising concerns that the teen and 20-something crowd may be getting the wrong message.
"We'd be better off if we learn to cope naturally instead of artificially," said Scott Basinger, the assistant dean at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston for extramural affairs, who specializes in substance abuse. "It's the most bizarre way of managing your emotions, through pharmacology and chemistry, rather than the natural way, which is by dealing with the issues in front of you."
Keith-Thomas Ayoob, a practicing pediatric nutritionist and associate professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, agrees. "These drinks will do nothing to change the cause of the stress," he said. "People should look for reasons why they have stress and not for help from some sugary drink with herbs."
Drinking to relieve stress, of course, is nothing new. Chris MacDonald, a philosophy and business ethics professor at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, Canada, finds cause for concern with some drinks' targeting adolescents by comparing their effects with those of marijuana and what MacDonald calls the "universal relaxation drink": alcohol.
The youth demographic "seems willing to spend on new products, unlike their parents or grandparents' generation," MacDonald said. "It's legal. And the adult relaxation drinks are not available to those under 21.
"My main concern was that there were uncertain quantities of poorly understood herbal extracts being marketed as something that would be physiologically effective on your body and brain," he added.
The drinks generally contain a variety of those herbs and other ingredients -- valerian root, rose hips, melatonin, kava for example -- that don't necessarily need to be regulated.
The Federal Drug Administration is aware of drinks containing these ingredients, according to spokesperson Siobhan DeLancey. Valerian root is an approved food additive, and rose hips are labeled "Generally Regarded As Safe," or GRAS. But not all ingredients in relaxation drinks have been cleared by the FDA -- and don't need to be in order to be available on the market.
"A company can make what is called a 'self-GRAS determination,'" DeLancey wrote in an e-mail. "The FDA can take regulatory action if it determines that the substance is not truly GRAS for the intended use. At present, we have not done this with melatonin in [some] so-called 'relaxation drinks.'"
Aaron Treptow, 21, an accounting student at Arizona State University, tried one of the drinks by accident—mistaking its package design for an energy drink. His recollection is of feeling "slightly tired," as if the drink raised his "heartbeat at first," but then after a half hour, "it was like I didn't have anything."