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I Drank 'Science-Based Functional Beverages' for a Week

Dietary supplement beverages continue to flood the market. Here’s what it’s like to drink “functional tonics” for a week.
Image: Gabriela Barkho.

The dietary supplement market is now a $37 billion industry, so choosing products isn't so easy given the number of supplements flooding shelves. One "wellness" supplement that did catch my eye is Kolé Tonics by Kolé Life Foods—mainly due to the fact that it was "founded by award-winning neuroscientist Dr. Bankole Johnson."

Kolé sent me its entire menu of Tonics, which include the following:

  • Dreams: Sleep Tonic that contains Vitamin B-12 and Melatonin "to support the natural sleep-wake cycles of the body."
  • Inspire: Brain Tonic that contains Thiamine, Riboflavin, Vitamin B-12, Vitamin B-6 and Magnesium "to support brain health."
  • Ignite: a Vitality Tonic that contains Chromium, L-Arginine, Ginseng Root Extract, Oat Straw Extract, Epimedium Grass Extract and N-Acetyl-L-Tyrosine "to support healthy sexual response."
  • Happy: Feel Good Tonic formulated with Vitamin B-12, L-Tryptophan and L-Glutamine "to promote a sense of bliss and tranquility in healthy people."


Despite concern and warnings from family, friends and medical experts, I decided to try the full line of Kolé Tonics to some varied and surprising results.

"I'm very skeptical about supplements in general, especially 'functional drinks'," nutritionist Lauren Bartell Weiss told me. Regarding the quantity of nutrients in the tonics, along with preservatives and artificial sweetener, Dr. Weiss' concern is that "Some of the tonics have way more than the daily recommended dose, like the large amounts of Vitamin B."

Like the saying goes, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing, and Weiss agrees.

"The ingredients are more potent than you'd find in a multivitamin. They may be similar to taking some sort of medication," Weiss continued. "The claims that everything is scientifically backed doesn't pertain to the formulations and the ingredients."

Due to this, throughout the week on Kolé Tonics, I tried to avoid other factors like caffeine and stimulants in order to fully feel the effects of the nutrients in the supplements.

Having checked the warning labels and noted the large quantities of ingredients in the four "functioning" tonics, I decided to drink them around the clock for a week in hopes of reviving my fatigued body's state and feel Kolé's immediate effects.

I also decided to end the day with a "Gin & Inspire" cocktail, just for good measure. An interesting buzz, to say the least.

I started the first night with Dreams. The label recommended that I drink a full serving, which is one whole TK 16.9 fl. Oz. bottle. After drinking half a chilled bottle, I was passed out for approximately three hours ahead of my normal 2 A.M. bedtime. The mixture killed my insomnia for the night, a welcome change to my sleeping troubles.


The quick dozing off came with a price, however. I woke up in a drowsy, post sleep aid-daze—a Dreams hangover! That morning, Dr. David Seres—director of medical nutrition and associate professor of medicine in the Institute of Human Nutrition at Columbia University Medical Center—told me my Nyquil-esque hangover and weak voice are "probably due to the Tryptophan and Melatonin in the Dreams tonic."

Because I still felt sleepy by noon, I decided to get Inspired by drinking Inspire throughout my workday. I didn't feel any particular inspiration after downing the whole bottle of "Brain Tonic." This is apparently normal, according to Kolé Tonics executive vice president Bernard Rubin, who explained that a lot of the nutrients in the tonics are meant to supplement your body's natural chemical reactions. Immediate results aren't always a given, he said.

"You get the healthy vitamin C," Rubin said about the Inspire drink. "It's to help with attention and focus."

I did feel a temporary burst of energy from Inspire, but not any more than I would from a cup of my daily coffee. Unlike the overly sweetened Dreams though, Inspire's taste was a little more in line with my palate. Still sweet, but the fizzy carbonation helped take the edge off.

I also decided to end the day with a "Gin & Inspire" cocktail, just for good measure. An interesting buzz, to say the least.

Gin & Inspire. Image: Gabriela Barkho.

When I asked Rubin if any lab testing was done for these products, he assured me that the only thing tested was their marketability.


"We haven't done any medical studies because that's associated with medical products," Rubin explained. "Our product is a dietary supplement. We tested taste, preference, and packaging to see what people wanted from a dietary supplement."

At this point, you may be wondering how products with scientific claims can even make it to market without government regulation. This is largely due to the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA), which "established some special regulatory requirements and procedures for structure/function claims and two related types of dietary supplement labeling claims, claims of general well-being and claims related to a nutrient deficiency disease."

In short, "Because these products' claims are natural functions of the body, the Food and Drug Administration wouldn't take issue with them," FDA dietary supplement spokesperson Lyndsay Meyer told me. "As long as it's not making a therapeutic claim, it's allowed."

Unlike drug products that must be proven safe and effective for their intended therapeutic use before marketing, there are no provisions in the law for FDA to "approve" dietary supplements for safety or effectiveness before they reach the consumer.

"It's not Viagra in a bottle, which we try to communicate."

So how do these products even get attention from the FDA? Dr. Weiss told me that "the only way we know is after there's been enough adverse events reported to the FDA, and because manufacturers aren't required to report incidents to the FDA, it would have to come directly from consumers."


On my third day of drinking Kolé's products, I had my first taste of Ignite, which according to Kolé's Rubin, "is designed to enhance intimacy, and has a combo of ingredients to prep for it. It's not Viagra in a bottle, which we try to communicate." While I didn't feel any aphrodisiac effects like the Website claims, I did feel a sugar-induced headache come on.

"In Ignite, it doesn't show what herbs are blended and how much," Dr. Weiss explained. "With herbal formulation, they can have detrimental effects on the brain. The herbs and citicoline (a brain chemical typically used to treat Alzheimer's and dementia) are concerning."

When asked what the feedback was like for Kolé's doses, Rubin said the company did make some tweaks throughout the manufacturing process.

"We have made changes to our labels," he said. "Dosage and disclaimer was one of the notes we got from customers."

Finally, it was time to try perhaps the most interesting beverage in the Kolé line: Happy, the "Feel Good Tonic." Did I feel happy throughout the day? I would say yes, fairly so. But that could also be because I got paid that day. Happy also happens to be my least favorite tasting drink in the line.

The future of products like Kolé Tonics is unpredictable at this point, but the medical field's biggest current concern with dietary supplements is that their touting "science-based" benefits is misleading to consumers.


"The problem is, unless you have a severe deficiency, supplementation has no effect on the brain and body," Dr. Seres from the Columbia University Medical Center said. "Supplementation of many nutrients has been shown to be harmful. None of the mixture in this product, with the exception of some very weak data from poorly designed studies on citicoline, has proven to have effect on memory."

Another concern from the medical field is the marketing aspect, which can lead many unhealthy people to buy into the these dubious benefits.

During my trial of the Tonics, a Science of US piece on Kolé', in which the author found that one of the only positive feedbacks on the company's Facebook wall was from a Leonard J. Meyer, who "appears to serve on the board of [pharmaceutical company] ADial with Johnson."

In the light of these events, when I tried to interview Dr. Johnson himself for this story, Kolé Life Foods' publicist said that, "Because Professor Johnson is on staff at the University of Maryland, he can no longer be seen promoting his own products directly, though he's excited about them!" Instead, she offered for me to speak to Rubin.

"The basis of creating the product was to solve needs; for example: 30 percent of Americans complain about sleep, and with that in mind, Dr. Johnson had a look at these problems and formulated the products," Rubin told me.

With these claims, the medical community feels it has a lot of concern regarding the safety of consumers. "I'm very worried about the marketing aspect of these types of products, and that people will replace medications with dangerous supplements like these," Weiss said. "There's been labs that looked into dietary supplements and only 25 percent had what they claimed in them."

Would I drink these Tonics on a daily basis? Probably not. The quantities of ingredients added to my already nutrient-dense daily diet feels unnecessary. For what it's worth though, Inspire did make for a good cocktail mixer.

Correction: This article originally wrongly stated that the FDA doesn't regulate supplements. It does regulate supplements to a degree (manufacturers have to submit serious adverse event reports associated with the use of their supplements, for example), but it has no authority whatsoever over the efficacy of supplements since they're considered to be foods.