When Radiohead released their seminal album OK Computer 25 years ago, they could have been writing about life two decades from then with the lyrics “Fitter, happier, more productive, comfortable, not drinking too much, regular exercise at the gym (three days a week).”

Back then, the band captured a sentiment that has crystalised into a way of life for many, especially in younger generations. Many have wanted to maximise their potential, from the use of anti-ageing creams to remain youthful looking, to the drinking of protein shakes to bulk up their muscles. More recently, however, the focus on self-improvement has turned cerebral: an increasing number of people are looking for ways to boost their mental function.

Enter nootropics: ingredients or substances that improve cognitive activity. The term ‘nootropic’ was created by Romanian neuroscientist Corneliu Giurgea in 1972 when it was noted during clinical trials that the drug piracetam boosted memory.

According to an analysis of the nootropics niche by US-based consultancy Grand View Research, the size of the market globally is projected to grow from US$10.67bn in 2021 to $29.24bn in 2028, representing a compound annual growth rate of 15%.

At present, the most popular form for taking nootropics is by tablet and capsule, which represented 45% of the market by revenue, according to Grand View Research While this product type will continue to account for the largest share of the market, the area expected to see the most growth between 2021 and 2028 is beverages due to the handy fact nootropics can be digested more quickly in liquid form than in food.

The beverage segment is projected to register the fastest CAGR (16%) from 2021 to 2028. Nootropics are being incorporated into RTD drinks and shots, with brand owners saying the ingredients can help improve functions such as focus and memory.

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Nootropics are already widely used – mainly unwittingly – by people around the world in the form of caffeine. However, caffeine has other side effects, such as causing anxiety and sleep deprivation, ultimately undoing the positive energising, focusing effects of coffee, tea and energy drinks.

A number of the new nootropics beverages – if they use caffeine – combine other ingredients to help boost the brain while hopefully avoiding the jitters. Take Brite, a drink created ‘for better focus’, which mixes L-Theanine with caffeine to improve cognitive function, and Ashwagandha root to reduce anxiety and stress.

No, low… feel good?

Nootropics go hand-in-hand with the low- and no-alcohol market. After all, what’s the point in drinking something to improve brain function if it’s also going to give you a hangover?

One of the first drinks brands to come to market utilising nootropics with a no-alcohol spirit marketing approach was Three Spirit, which was launched in 2018. ‘Created by plant scientists and bartenders’ reads the strapline, and the three ‘elixirs’ marketed under the brand describe how the drinks should make a person feel, from the energising Livener to the calming Nightcap.

Caught up in the non-alcoholic trend, the message around the mood-enhancing properties of its products was perhaps lost for a while, but, according to co-founder Tatiana Mercer, it is now getting through.

“Our drinks are rooted in occasions – our Livener is sold in a Brooklyn music venue and we’re in talks with Fabric [nightclub in London]. The Nightcap is on flights with Virgin, as is the Livener to pick people up,” she explains. “Flavour-first is a lot of the trade’s approach to non-alcoholic drinks but function is what gets you a sticky customer. Our best-seller is Nightcap because sleep is such a big issue.”

Consumer interest in nootropics

Consumer adoption and understanding vary widely between markets, she says: “The UK consumer is less educated on nootropics and adaptogens, whereas in the US there are a lot of brands now. We were the first [in the US], with Kin Euphorics.”

As well as positioning products to help consumers mentally approach certain situations, another aspect to perhaps consider when creating and marketing nootropics drinks for consumers is the changing wants and needs of people in different age groups.

Older generations are more likely to be concerned about helping to boost and maintain their cognitive function at a point in life when it often declines. For Millennials and Gen-Z, where work-related stress and busy social lives are key drivers, these cohorts will often be keen to find something that gives them a buzz for social occasions or helps to calm them down in stressful situations.

However, a lot of these issues still transcend age groups. Mercer shares a testimonial from an older man who was recently widowed and was struggling to go to bed without having a few glasses of wine each night. After discovering Three Spirit’s range, he will have a drink from each of the brand’s products at different points in the night to fit with what he is doing, starting with a Livener and ending in the Nightcap.

Potential headwinds

So what could act as a brake on the growth of nootropics? First off, a lack of research, and consequently evidence, into the supposed effects of a lot of these ingredients. Medical trials and studies are expensive and take time to plan and execute. New start-up brands, unless created by multinational corporations, often don’t have the funds to back these sorts of trials. As a result, a lot of the claims of a drink’s function remain just that, which is undoubtedly off-putting for some consumers and likely some buyers, too.

Secondly, it’s a lack of information about the interaction of these ingredients with other substances and medications. Could a supposedly innocent drink negate the effects of someone’s blood-thinning medication, for instance?

The final issue brings us back to the caffeine question – there are some brands out there that promote themselves as nootropics drinks, but are essentially simply caffeinated rocket fuel. Neu, for instance, contains 350mg of caffeine and 250mg of L-Theanine in its shots. Given that the average espresso shot contains 63mg of caffeine, a person can easily blast through the daily recommended amount of caffeine (which the FDA in the US puts at 400mg) without much thought.

In short, nootropics may be a promised new land for the drinks industry and one in which more consumers are showing interest. Caution must be exercised, however, when assessing just how far the niche could develop into a more substantial market.