The History of Youth Drinks from Kool-Aid to Red Bull — A Turning Point in America's Drinking History

Kool Aid

For much of American history kids drank what their parents did, including alcohol, which was sometimes diluted and sometimes not. Beginning in the 1920s beverage-makers began producing and marketing drinks to kids. In the chapter “Youth Beverages” from his new book Drinking History: Fifteen Turning Points in the Making of American Beverages, Andrew F. Smith traces the history of youth drinks from Kool-Aid to Red Bull. Here are a couple of excerpts that explore the genesis of these two products and their popularity:

In 1920, Edwin Perkins—head of the Perkins Products Company of Hastings, Nebraska—marketed a new drink mix called Fruit Smack—a bottled syrup to be combined with water and sugar. The product did fairly well, but the heavy bottles were expensive to mail and they often broke in transit, dismaying customers and costing Perkins money to replace. In 1927, he came up with the ideal alternative: inspired by the tremendous success of Jell-O dessert powder, Perkins devised a powdered concentrate to be sold in paper packets. Customers still just had to add water and sugar, but with paper packets instead of bottles, they were much less likely to receive a soggy, drippy package when they ordered the product by mail. Perkins created six flavors—cherry, grape, lemon-lime, orange, raspberry, and strawberry—and sold the packets by mail for 10 cents apiece. He called the product Kool-Ade, which he trademarked in February 1928.

Not content to sell his product by mail, Perkins soon began a campaign to distribute Kool-Ade through grocery stores. It was promoted in newspapers, magazines, and on the radio—a very novel way to promote products at the time. The campaign brought Kool-Ade to the attention of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which claimed that “-ade” meant “a drink made from.” Because most Kool-Ades were named after fruit, such as oranges, grapes, and lemons, this implied (according to the FDA) that it should be composed of fruit juice; however, Kool-Ade was artificially flavored and colored. The company renamed its product to Kool-Aid in 1934.

During the Depression, Perkins lowered the price of Kool-Aid to a nickel per packet and launched a national advertising campaign aimed at children. The company placed advertisements in children’s magazines; like promotions for other children’s products, Kool-Aid ads promised readers a gift, such as a pilot’s cap, in exchange for empty Kool-Aid packages.

Kool-Aid dominated the children’s beverage market throughout the Depression. It was priced low for consumers and cost little to make, and the Kool-Aid flavors were loved by many children. During World War II, sugar was rationed, so Kool-Aid sales lagged; after the war, however, the product took off. By 1950, Perkins Products was cranking out 1 million packets of Kool-Aid a day. In 1953, Edwin Perkins sold the company to General Foods Corporation, which introduced the famous “Smiling Face Pitcher” advertising campaign for Kool-Aid in 1954.

Kool-Aid sales skyrocketed, which encouraged researchers at General Foods to experiment with variations on Kool-Aid. In 1957, they came up with an orange-flavored, powdered breakfast-drink mix fortified with vitamins. Sold in jars, the new product was released in 1959 under the brand name Tang. The mix might have disappeared quietly from the market if the National Aeronautic and Space Administration had not sent Tang on its Gemini space flights in 1962. Inextricably linked to the glamour of astronauts and space flight, Tang’s popularity soared. Kool-Aid and Tang are just two of thousands of beverages targeted at children, adolescents, and those younger than thirty years.

Smith brings the story of youth drinks up to the present looking at the recent popularity of sports drinks and energy drinks, including Red Bull:

Red Bull was introduced into the United States in 1997; it became America’s first popular energy drink. Each 8.3-ounce can supplied 80 milligrams of caffeine—about the same as a strong cup of coffee—as well as taurine (an amino acid) and glucuronolactone, a chemical that supposedly detoxifies the body. Red Bull started a frenzy of copycat beverages, such as Jolt, Monster Energy, No Fear, Rockstar, Full Throttle, and myriad other brands. Large companies jumped in, with Anheuser-Busch’s 180, Coca-Cola’s KMX, Del Monte Foods’s Bloom Energy, and PepsiCo’s Adrenaline Rush, SoBe, and Amp brands. These drinks boast caffeine levels up to 500 mg per 16 ounces, and they are often loaded with various forms of sugar. By the early twenty-first century, there were more than 300 energy drinks on the American market. Many include caffeine combined with other substances such as guarana, ginseng, and ginkgo biloba. Unlike sports drinks, which hydrate the body to replace fluid lost during exercise, the caffeine in energy drinks dehydrate the body.

Red Bull’s prime consumers were young adults (eighteen to thirty-four years old), particularly college students and young men who considered it to be a performance enhancer. Red Bull controls about 40 percent of the energy beverage market in the United States. In 2004, the most important energy drinks in the United States were Rockstar International and Coca-Cola Full Throttle and Tab brands. Energy drink consumption increased at an annual rate of 55 percent per year, according to Packaged Facts. They estimated that, in 2006, the U.S. market for energy drinks totaled $5.4 billion. Americans drink 3.8 quarts per person annually, according to Zenith International.

The percentage of adolescents and young adults who consume energy drinks increased markedly between 2001 and 2008. The effects of these drinks on children and teens have not been well studied, but some health professionals cite a number of potential dangers, including heart palpitations, seizures, and cardiac arrest, among others.

Red Bull and other energy drinks were often used as mixers for alcoholic beverages. Then, in 2000, Agwa, a beverage made from spent coca leaves that combined caffeine and alcohol, was introduced into America. Other companies began producing caffeinated alcoholic beverages. Within two years, the two leading brands of caffeinated alcoholic beverages sold 337,500 gallons. By 2008, sales reached 22,905,000 gallons, and they continued to increase ever since.25 A major reason for their success has been their heavy marketing to youth. Warnings about the consumption of alcohol and caffeine have proliferated and some countries have banned caffeinated alcoholic beverages. Today, more than 25 brands of caffeinated alcoholic beverages are sold in a variety of U.S. retail alcohol outlets, including many convenience stores.

Today, beverages that particularly target teenagers and young adults are rapidly expanding. Supermarkets, grocery stores, convenience stores, and fast-food chains sell thousands of beverages that cater to these demographics. The diversity of these beverages has been rapidly increasing along with sales, and they likely will continue to increase in the future.

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