Truck drivers, late night study sessions and busy people working two jobs all have something in common – they need a way to stay alert and get extra energy. Once the beverage of choice for athletes and night shift workers, energy drinks have increased in popularity over the last two decades and are now considered a mainstream product. In an age where everybody is rushing, multitasking, and rarely has time for themselves, this subset of the soft drink industry emerged triumphant. Energy drinks are experiencing rapid growth and increasing in popularity and are currently thought to be the next high-growth sector of the soft drink industry as more and more companies take advantage of this lucrative market.
What does a typical energy drink contain? Most are non-alcoholic and rely on a combination of caffeine, sugar and taurine – an amino acid – in order to achieve the desired effect. They were first consumed by American athletes who felt the need for a drink that would give them an extra bit of energy before and during competitions. However, before long the general public was also clamoring for energy drinks – and beverage companies were more than happy to cater to the new demand.
Kosher energy drinks came later, after the product took off in the general market. "We’ve worked with the biggest beverage companies in the world," says Rabbi Aharon Haskel, head of OK Israel, "and mostly they believed that investing in the production of kosher-certified energy drinks wasn’t worth it. They thought energy drinks were a passing fad."
What made experienced managers hesitant to bring on kosher supervision? For one thing, a close look at the label of an energy drink can cause real alarm: you will find warnings that pregnant women and children, diabetics and caffeine-sensitive people should not consume energy drinks. There is also a statement – required by law in most western countries – that the drink contains a lot of caffeine. Energy drinks have some controversial health concerns, so companies thought their appeal would not last. If energy drinks weren’t there to stay, why invest in a kosher version?
The OK was first approached to certify an energy drink seven years ago, when the Israeli company Shamshum (owned by a Christian-Arab family from Nazareth) applied to have the XL energy drinks kosher certified. At the time, Red Bull was the only energy drink sold in Israel and it was considered a premium product. Shamshum thought they could reach a much wider audience with a product that, while being a bona-fide energy drink, would be cheaper and more readily available. After researching the energy drink market, Shamshum chose the European brand XL, a little-known brand which would be possible to import into Israel for a reasonable cost.
The kosher requirements were not easy for XL. Energy drinks must have a reliable hechsher. XL did not have their own filling facilities and instead outsourced the fillings to a variety of facilities by contacting a filling plant and reserving a date for the XL fillings. Once the OK came into the picture, the selection of filling days became limited. Since most filling facilities fill grape juice drinks as well, the OK had to ensure that all filling would stop for 24 hours before the kosherizing process for XL filling could take place. That means that kosher productions could take place only on Monday mornings since the factories are closed on Sundays.
There was also a problem with some of the ingredients. Energy drinks are produced by using compound (pre-mix) which, at that time, was produced by only two manufacturers in the world. These compounds contained a great number of ingredients, and the OK had to receive the full list of the ingredients and suppliers and visit each plant in order to make sure the compound could receive kosher approval. "It was by no means easy," says Rabbi Yaakov Perlov, who was then the company rabbi of Shamshum. "We needed the cooperation of many companies and kosher agencies, and we literally travelled all over the world to get the information we needed, but finally the process was completed and the compound was approved." Getting a kosher for Passover compound, however, was not successful. Following Shamshum’s request, the OK made an attempt to help produce a special compound which could be approved for Passover. Unfortunately, the result was only mediocre and the attempt wasn’t repeated.
XL did not have their own filling facilities and instead outsourced the fillings to a variety of facilities by contacting a filling plant and reserving a date for the XL fillings…
Since Shamshum did not want the new product to be expensive, they needed to minimize the production cost. The productions were frequent, especially once the drink was introduced to the Israeli market and proved to be a success, and flying a rabbi over from Israel for every production would have been prohibitively expensive. Luckily, the OK has field representative all over the world and after the first productions, local mashgichim supervised the fillings which took place in 3 plants – two in Holland and one in Poland.
After a few years, the agreement between Shamshum and XL was terminated. XL decided to partner with a different Israeli distributer, so Shamshum developed their own brand, ‘Blu’, which was produced and filled in Poland. Once again, the OK was there to approve the formula and the production process. Soon, the Israeli market had the benefit of two OK-certified energy drinks: XL and Blu. Today, those brands control 90 percent of the energy drink market in Israel. Most other Israeli companies who consider introducing their own energy drinks to the market also contact the OK, trusting our experience in this industry.
The local mashgichim still attend every production of both XL and Blu drinks. "To make the work easier," says Rabbi Perlov, "we reached an agreement with both companies that only ingredients we approve can enter the filling plants which are used for the kosher products."
How does the non-Jewish staff view the kosher requirements? Rabbi Eliezer Gurary, the Chabad Shaliach in Krakow, Poland, who often supervises productions for Blu and XL, says: "The plant personnel usually enjoy learning about kosher issues. They equate kosher certification with high quality and they are proud of producing kosher products."
Of course, from time to time, the mashgiach needs originality and resourcefulness to resolve issues that come up unexpectedly. "Once I was supervising a production where the production manager was worried about the kosherizing procedure for the silo tanks. The halacha calls for filling the tanks with boiling water and then with cold water. He said that producing right after filling the tanks with cold water was unhygienic. So, after a discussion, I offered to fill the tanks with boiling water again after the kosherizing and start producing only after that additional step. He agreed and that was what we did."
When the OK started certifying energy drinks, only a few containers were produced every year and sold in Israel alone. Today about 1,000 containers of OK-certified energy drinks are produced every year and marketed in America and Europe as well.
"It’s ongoing work," says Rabbi Haskel, Director of OK Israel. "Today the trend is to produce energy drinks in many different flavors – a flavor for every season, for every culture…We are constantly asked to approve new flavors – and new colors. There are also drinks produced with artificial sweeteners and we have to ensure only approved sweeteners are used."
One of the greatest challenges for the OK was to find a kosher alternative for E163, a color one of the clients wanted to use – a deep crimson color which is produced from grape skins. The OK arranged for the color to be produced from grapes that were supervised from the crushing stage. The company which undertook this task was, providentially, also an OK certified company.
"You can never rest on your laurels with energy drinks," says Rabbi Perlov. "This is not a static product, but an ever-changing one. You need a lot of energy in order to produce kosher energy drinks… Thankfully, at the OK we have that kind of energy!"
Is There Such a Thing as Healthy Energy Drink?
Typical energy drinks are far from being healthy, since they are packed with caffeine, sugar and taurine. However, it is possible to find healthier substitutes – thought they are, of course, considerably more costly.
The OK recently certified one such substitute, produced by Gat Foods, the biggest beverage company in Israel, which markets three brands: Carlsberg beer, Tuborg beer, and Prigat soft drinks. Gat Foods is a long-standing client of the OK and once the soft drinks division decided to launch their healthy energy drink, the OK was consulted for certification.
This new energy drink, called Cranergy, is based on cranberry concentrate and grape concentrate. It also contains guarana, coffee extract and tea extract. The caffeine content in the drink is much lower than standard energy drinks and the drink is sweetened with stevia instead of sugar.
Since there are so many natural ingredients in the Cranergy drink, certification was a truly global project. The grape concentrate was produced under strict supervision in Argentina, the cranberry concentrate came from the US, and the coffee and tea extracts were purchased from Germany. No fewer than 10 mashgichim were involved in ensuring that this new, high-quality product is kosher without compromise!
Note: Cranergy is only certified kosher when produced in Israel and bearing the OK symbol.