Kava 'anti-energy' drink takes root in the Southland

By chillinwill · Dec 29, 2009 · ·
  1. chillinwill
    There's no pot in Mary Jane's Relaxing Soda, but the maker is riding on the drug's cachet to sell the beverage, one of several purportedly calming drinks made from plants long used as folk remedies.

    In Los Angeles, where medical marijuana dispensaries outnumber Starbucks and McDonald's restaurants combined, a mood-altering beverage with a cannabis-oriented marketing campaign is gaining traction.

    Southern California has become the bestselling market for Mary Jane's Relaxing Soda, a sugary drink laced with kava, a South Pacific root purported to have sedative properties.

    Matt Moody, a Denver nutritional supplement developer who created the beverage, said the name is an unabashed reference to weed, though the relaxant compounds in kava are chemically unrelated to those in marijuana.

    Along with drinks like Slow Cow and Ex Chill, Mary Jane's is part of a new group of so-called slow-down or anti-energy drinks, which are expected to be among the top food trends of 2010, according to advertising agency J. Walter Thompson.

    They rely on folk-medicine sedatives, including kava, camomile and valerian, to provide an alternative to caffeine-laced and jitter-inducing energy drinks such as Red Bull.

    The drinks purportedly promote calming, and they also take on the energy-drink category directly by claiming also to boost mental focus and concentration, said Ann Mack, director of trend-spotting at the ad agency.

    Said Travis Arnesen, spokesman for Ex Drinks of Henderson, Nev.: "It is a new category, kind of like energy drinks, but designed to relax people. Just recently it has been picking up steam."

    The company's Ex Chill drink comes in an 8.4-ounce can that sells for $2 at Albertsons, 7-Elevens and some Bristol Farms markets. Slow Cow, made by Boisson Slow Cow Inc. of Quebec, Canada, plans to start distribution in the U.S. next year.

    These "relaxation" drinks have become popular fodder for food bloggers, with some calling Mary Jane's "weed in a bottle."

    Kava has long been "a popular recreational drug through much of the Pacific, especially Vanuatu, Fiji, Samoa and Tonga," said Lamont Lindstrom, a University of Tulsa anthropologist who has studied the use of the plant in Pacific Islander culture.

    The calming effect is probably real, said Michael Pollastri, a pharmaceuticals chemist at Boston University.

    "If there were not therapeutic effects, it would not be a 1,000-year-old folk medicine," Pollastri said.

    Kava warrants a closer look by drug chemists to figure out how it works as a relaxant and what else it might be useful for, but that work is just beginning, Pollastri said.

    There are no age limits or restrictions for consumers. Medical experts, however, caution that drinks containing kava and other supplements could have a downside, depending on the chemical compounds used as ingredients and how the plants are processed.

    The Food and Drug Administration has issued a consumer warning that people with "liver disease or liver problems, or persons who are taking drug products that can affect the liver, should consult a physician before using kava-containing supplements." But the agency has not restricted sales of kava-based products.

    The warning hasn't dissuaded Kristie Richardson, a new mother from San Clemente, from using Mary Jane's to unwind after a difficult day of work at a medical systems company.

    On the way home, Richardson frequently drops into a local 7-Eleven to pick up several bottles, which sell for $2.49 each.

    "I put my 7-month-old to bed, open up a Mary Jane's Soda and chill," Richardson said.

    She described the drink as "sweet tea meets cola," and said "it helps me to unwind" and makes a good alternative to alcoholic beverages, which Richardson said she doesn't drink.

    Moody developed the beverage after he was laid off a year ago from a nutritional supplement company. "I had experience with kava in the past," he said. "I knew it was effective but not widely used in the U.S."

    The kava root's "awful taste" was one reason it has not gained the same acceptance as other folk-based nutritional supplements, Moody said.

    But blending it into a drink that contains cane sugar solved that. Another beverage company makes it on contract for his Moody's Denver-based Mary Jane's Soda Inc.

    About 70% of the company's retail sales are in Southern California, Moody said. The drink's market is so concentrated in the region that Moody plans to move the business to the Inland Empire.

    The 7-Eleven stores stocking Mary Jane's sell the product at a rate of about 14 bottles a day, which is considered a healthy pace for a niche beverage, Moody said. It also sells in scattered bars and cafes and online through the Mary Jane's Soda website.

    Nathan Scholl, a waiter at a Santa Monica restaurant, said he was "hooked" on the cola-colored liquid, which comes packed in a clear 12-ounce bottle with a blue label.

    Though the drink doesn't make him high, Scholl said, he finds "the whole Mary Jane thing funny."

    "I drink it after a long day. It takes five or 10 minutes to sink in and then I feel relaxed and slightly euphoric," he said.

    By Jerry Hirsch
    December 29, 2009
    LA Times

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  1. ForcedZen
    Thanks for sharing this.

    Very interesting product. I'd like to try it, I wonder as to it's availability on the East Coast..
  2. ianzombie
    Swim would like to try these new drinks but does not think they will hit Ireland for a while, and not any of them containing Kava as its still a victim of the 'whole plant' fiasco from a few years ago where certain companies were not using the roots alone.

    Its an interesting idea, although probably not anywhere as good as they are being marketed to be.
  3. Terrapinzflyer
    That is truly a mind staggering statement. :crazy
  4. chillinwill
    Wasn't that statement about the # of dispensaries outnumbering Starbucks earlier this year? I hate it when the media compares it to something like that because it is irrelevant to fast food restaurants. I believe that the dispensaries no longer outnumber Starbucks and McDonald's combined since LA recently came up with new medical marijuana dispensary regulations. IIRC, the total # of medical marijuana dispensaries in LA would be 137. Would that # be greater than the combined total of McDonald's and Starbucks in LA? I don't know how many Starbucks and McDonald's exist in LA, but I am sure it is a decent sized number.
  5. Terrapinzflyer
    ^^ while I believe your right about the cap placed at 137 (and a goal of 70 I believe), current listings show the numbers still much, much higher. And some reports of the cap stated that currently operating dispensaries would probably be able to continue operations until late spring or early summer of 2010.

    And I kind of like the comparison of their commonality to mcdonalds/starbucks- they are ubiquitous and are something most people can relate to.
  6. chillinwill
    True that they are ubiquitous and most people can relate to that comparison. It is just with the proliferation of the dispensaries everywhere, I just don't want to see anti-medical marijuana people making this comparison because personally, I don't see why it matters if the dispensaries outnumber McDonald's/Starbucks or not. But I can see how making the comparison to them makes it easier for people to make the comparison.
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