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What Does Energy Really Mean?

Published on: Jan 23 2019

Consumers are constantly looking for ways to get “energy”, but what does that actually mean and why are so many people seeking it?  The answers to both of those questions are likely as varied as the people you may ask.

White coffee mug filled with coffee beans

A Google search for “consumer energy” will find information on electrical grids and energy efficient solutions, not food and beverage products. What we do know is that people are looking for solutions to help compensate for the 24-hour, 7-day a week race that has become our normal lifestyle.  Whether it is the lack of sleep, long hours, juggling competing priorities, or even searching for a sense of calm in the midst of chaos we are looking for ways to accomplish more.

The challenge is to figure out where on the consumer energy spectrum products should be developed for, as well as understanding the benefit the consumer is expecting to experience.

Why are consumers seeking energy solutions?

  • Compensate for lack of sleep- 24/7 lifestyle.
  • Perform better in physical tasks (e.g. sports, labor intensive jobs, keeping up with the kids/grandkids).
  • Perform better mentally (e.g. test taking, cognition, focus, memory).
  • Perform better both mentally and physically.
  • Calmness during stressful situation to help focus energy.

What is energy and where does it come from?

Despite so many people wanting energy, the actual definition of it is difficult to pin down.  In the purest sense, energy simply equals calories. At the food level, energy comes from the macronutrients (carbohydrates, fat, protein) we eat.  Calories from the food that we eat provide the energy/fuel we need to keep our bodies running (IOM, 2005). Nutrients like B vitamins are often associated with energy, but don’t actually provide any energy themselves. Instead, they help our body unlock the energy found in carbohydrates, proteins, and fat.

Energy can also defined as the boost we get from stimulants like caffeine.  Most of us drink a cup of coffee or tea in the morning to “help us get going”.  That boost comes from caffeine.  When you consume caffeine or other stimulants, you feel energized because they are, in part, increasing your heart rate, blood pressure and brain activity (McLellan et al. 2016). This wouldn’t fit the traditional definition of energy (calories), but still falls under the general population’s definition of energy.

Energy- is it mental, physical or both?

When cramming for exams or preparing for a big presentation we all want to feel focused and sharp – that is mental energy.  Mental energy can be defined as alertness, ability to complete a task, or not feeling mentally tired.

Physical energy, on the other hand, can come in many different versions.  Perhaps it is the energy to get through the day after being up all night, or the energy you need to do your job (e.g. construction) or even just that extra burst of energy to help you finish a race faster.  It is the energy that helps us overcome the fatigue and sluggishness that comes from our hectic 24-7 lives.

Finally, energy could be a combination of mental and physical energy, depending on the consumer.  For example, a soldier may seek energy to keep them awake for long periods of time while performing physically taxing exercises.

Man pushing wheelbarrow at construction site

Traditional Medicines- Ancient Remedies for 21st century challenges?

The quest for energy is not a new phenomenon.  In fact, traditional medicines from all over the world (Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda from India) have many ingredients/botanicals, called adaptogens, which have been used to help people cope during stressful times (Panossian 2017).  These traditional medicines have also used ingredients/botanicals to help provide a sense of overall wellbeing.

While the stressors in ancient times versus now are very different, the need for energy is still relevant.   Ginseng has been used as an endurance performance enhancer, while Rhodiola rosea helps increase resistance to muscle fatigue (Sellami 2018).  Ashwagandha was traditionally used to help enhance the body’s resilience to stress (Singh 2011).

Clinical science is still emerging with these and other traditional ingredients (e.g. turmeric, ginger) however the initial results suggest there may actually be something to these ancient practices (Panossian 2017, Liao 2018).

So what should be in an energy product?

First and foremost make sure you understand where on the energy spectrum the product needs to deliver.  Is it mental or physical, is it lack of sleep, or it is supposed to help provide calm in order to enhance performance? If it’s a snack bar for the morning, it’s likely the consumer is looking for both a physical and mental energy benefit. For an athlete trying to fuel through a workout, physical energy (calories) might be more of a focus.

Once you have that answer, finding the right functional ingredients to help support those benefits should hopefully be a bit easier.  One thing is for sure, as we continue to lead 24-hour, 7-day a week hectic schedules the need for energy is only going to increase.

  • References

    Institute of Medicine. 2005. Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

    Liao LY, He YF, Li L, Meng H, Dong YM, Yi F, Xiao PG.  A preliminary review of studies on adaptogens:  comparison of their bioactivity in TCM with that of ginseng-like herbs used worldwide.  Chin Med. 2018;16:13:57.

    McLellan TM, Caldwell JA, Lieberman HR.  A review of caffeine’s effects on cognitive physical and occupational performance.  Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2016;71:294-312.

    Panossian A.  Understanding adaptogenic activity:  specificity of the pharmacological action of adaptogens and other phytochemicals. Ann NY Acad Sci. 2017;1401:49-64.

    Sellami M et al. Herbal medicine for sports: a review.  J Int Soc Sport Nutr. 2018;15:14.

    Singh N et al. An overview of ashwagandha:  a rasayana (rejuvenator) of Ayurveda. Afr J Tradit Complement Altern Med. 2011;8:208-213.

  • Heather Nelson Cortes, PhD

    Heather Nelson Cortes holds a PhD in Nutritional Biochemistry from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.  With over 20 years of industry experience spanning areas from product innovation to product launches, and everything in between, her passion is the intersection of science and business.  She is currently a nutrition consultant specializing in the food, ingredient, and supplement markets.

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