Japan's soft drinks market has seen a rash of new products launched by the big beverage companies this year as they all chase a growing but health-driven market.

Asahi Breweries, Suntory and Kirin Brewery have all jumped on the bandwagon with products that are very different to the colas and carbonated drinks that dominate Europe and America.

In Japan and the western world, soft drinks that claim to boost energy and act as a pick-up are all the rage. Red Bull uses caffeine as the main ingredient in delivering this boost but in Japan consumers appear to be more health driven and products are marketed by the vitamins, minerals and electrolytes they contain.

Otsuka Pharmaceutical has been the main player in the Japanese non-cola market for some years with Pocari Sweat.

Pocari Sweat replaces glucose, water and electrolytes lost in perspiration. It is widely regarded as a sports drink although few people drink it during sports and it was originally targeted at physical labourers and as a morning eye-opener.

Pocari sells about 60m cases (of 24 cans) out of the total market of 110m cases but the big Japanese brewers have decided they want a piece of what they consider a growing market.

Kirin launched Speed in March. It is being marketed specifically as a sports drink and the company has hired ace baseball player Daisuke Matsuzaka for its advertising campaign. Kirin is looking to sell 10m cases this year. Speed contains various nutrients designed to restore energy, theanine to improve concentration and vitamin B to calm nerves and reduce fatigue.

Asahi Soft Drinks launched Switch in March and it is being marketed for its ability to replace water and salt lost during exercise. It also contains polyphenol which Asahi claims will reduce fatigue and reverse cellular oxidation. Asahi hopes to sell 7m cases and is looking at teenagers as its main market.

The last of the new drinks is Suntory's Dakara. Suntory has done years of research on this market and has decided to launch a lifestyle drink rather than a specific sports-oriented product.

Suntory is highlighting the benefits of its "enhanced" Pocari Sweat. Dakara contains calcium, magnesium and fibre. It also aids the digestion of fat, salt and calories. The product is targeted at workers in their twenties who eat at odd times and are nutritionally deficient, it is also being promoted as a drink to have after a hot bath or even as a hangover cure.

Dakara joined the others on the shelves in March and within two months has sold 2.5m cases. Suntory has now upgraded its forecast for the end of the year from 10m cases to 18m. But what all the manufacturers have identified, despite slight differences in marketing, is that consumers are looking for physical benefits from their soft drinks.

Suntory spokesman Takeharu Sugawara says: "Suntory feels these products have become popular because most young people realise they are not consuming a nutritionally balanced diet. Those who are concerned about their health are reaching out for beverages that are good for them. As long as this mindset continues among young people, the demand for such supplement drinks will continue to grow."

They have moved away from the sugar-rich, caffeinated products sold in the West and are now proudly promoting obscure minerals and their benefits.

"We call it the near-water market in Japan and it is clear that people want a drink that has some function," Kirin spokesman Hiroshi Fujikawa told just-drinks.com.

"These products are good for the body. A couple of years ago these people would have been drinking water but they they have realised water is not good enough. They want something extra.

"We saw the same with wine a few years ago. When the health benefits were promoted, the sale of wine took off. Japanese consumers really are moved by concepts of health."

With the Japanese promoting healthier soft drinks it is perhaps inevitable that the US and Europe will pick up some of the ideas. The high caffeine drinks like Red Bull and V are currently popular but soft drinks with a list of medical benefits in their advertising may soon be appearing as well.

David Robertson