When I saw the pastel pink can of Recess sitting on the counter of a cafe in Southampton’s Parrish Art Museum, tucked between the blood orange Sanpellegrino, lime LaCroix, and a plain old plastic bottle of water, I was surprised: It was the first time I’d seen the brand outside of New York City’s fancier bodegas and grocery stores. It had apparently followed the crowds out to the Hamptons for the summer. “Does anybody buy this?” I asked the cashier. I was jonesing for an old-fashioned espresso myself, not the promised relaxation of a sparkling water infused with hemp extract and adaptogens, or stress-mitigating plants used in herbal medicine.
“They do, and I drink one every day,” she told me. “I don’t know if it works, and I wouldn’t actually pay $6 for it, but it’s free.”
Each can of Recess — available in the flavors blackberry chai, peach ginger, and pomegranate hibiscus — bears a label reading “calm cool collected.” It claims to be, essentially, chill in a can, and it is far from alone in sending the message that drinking this one weird beverage is a surefire way to calm the fuck down.
Entire display cases are now devoted to beverages created in the wake of the so-called anxiety economy that has blossomed in recent years. Typically dressed in soothing pastels that set them apart from the bold primary colors of a Coca-Cola or Red Bull, they are exemplars of millennial-focused branding, with an Instagram-friendly aesthetic that targets overworked young women seeking out brief moments of “self-care” as an alternative to traditional medicine. Beverages of this ilk, like Recess, Cha Cha Matcha, Dona, and Kin Euphorics, get their purported powers in part from ingredients often tied to herbal medicine, and bank upon a cultural moment when people are more likely to look for emotional health in a bodega refrigerator than to take the time (or funds) to seek professional help.
It was Benjamin Witte’s own participation in the “anxiety economy” that led him to launch Recess in 2018. The company’s founder had been using a CBD tincture to deal with his stress, a treatment that he says made him feel more balanced and even-keeled.
“While CBD was effective for me, the user experience [of] putting oil under your tongue a few times a day is not a great one,” Witte says. So the idea of adding hemp extract to a beverage seemed like the logical next step. CBD is what’s known as a functional ingredient — a bioactive compound that can, like caffeine, be added to many things, and, as importantly, be commodified. The resulting product was a response to the gap Witte saw in a functional beverage market already brimming with energy drinks, Gatorade, green tea, and kombucha. “There would be an opportunity to create new formulations and applications,” he says of his epiphany. “And then kind of most importantly, build a brand on top of that.”
Witte sees Recess as just the beginning of that brand, one that will target millennials (whose anxiety, the 31-year-old says, is “literally in our own heads”) through editorial content, merchandise, and “experiential,” a marketing term that just means in-person events.
The CBD space has remained rather unregulated, and the research on it has been minimal at best; it is especially inconclusive when it comes to the question of whether CBD reduces anxiety when ingested through food or drink. When I broach the topic of drinks whose ingredients include CBD and adaptogens with Sarah Corbett, a practicing herbalist and the co-founder of the “small-batch apothecary” Rowan and Sage, she isn’t impressed. “At best, it’s savvy marketing and maybe a relaxing afternoon; at worst, it’s a waste of your money,” she says. Because really: Can chill be canned?
The “wellness” drink exists along a continuum whose origins can be viewed on the shelves of health food stores, where Bragg apple cider vinegar drinks, numerous kombucha brands, and shots of ginger and ginseng contain simple, recognizable ingredients that adhere to Michael Pollan’s various adages about eating real food. These drinks are of the hippie old school, offering earth-bound health with the promise of a smoother bowel movement or a quick recovery from a seasonal cold. GT’s kombucha lists one of its primary ingredients as “100% Pure Love!!!”
But where the older generation of wellness drinks promised bodily restoration, the newer crop — made not by hippies but self-styled beverage market “disruptors” — sells mental peace and clarity with buzzwords used to describe ingredients that supposedly make your brain work better and help your body adapt to stress. They attempt to appeal to millennials with pastels or language about “nootropics” or “adaptogens,” ingredients purported to (respectively) improve cognition and help the body deal with stress.
They’re antidotes, in other words, to the unease of modern life. It’s hard to overlook the fact that the notion of “wellness” as something people could buy began gaining more traction in 2016, as tumultuous a year as recent memory can offer. A scroll through Vogue.com pinpoints the site’s first use of the “wellness” tag as December 1, 2016, on a post about Khloé Kardashian’s workout moves for a “better butt”; later that month, the site declared wellness — here commodified with products like Somadome, “an in-home meditation chamber” — as “2016’s most desired gift.”
The “wellness” label has been attached to all sorts of beverages. It was 2016 when the turmeric latte, or “golden milk,” began to appear widely on cafe menus and the Guardian noted its global availability. As the food writer Khushbu Shah wrote, selling drinkers on turmeric’s anti-inflammatory properties signaled a clear Columbusing of an ingredient once maligned in the West. “For many years, turmeric struggled to break out of its reputation in the West as a curry ingredient that left fingernails stained with its pungent yellow hue,” Shah observed. “Now, with its new name and presentation … the drink is a hot commodity.” Dona, a Brooklyn-based beverage company, began making chai concentrate in 2014; its founder, Amy Rothstein, got into the beverage industry through her interest in the spice industry. Her emphasis on single-origin sourcing echoes the fascination around antioxidant-rich Japanese matcha, which began rising in popularity in latte form in the U.S. around the same time. Buoyed by Instagram, it continued to propagate through small chains like Chalait, Maman, and Cha Cha Matcha.
It was also in 2016 that Laurie Penny wrote in the Baffler about wellness as a capitalism-driven ideology: “The wellbeing ideology is a symptom of a broader political disease,” she wrote. “The rigors of both work and worklessness, the colonization of every public space by private money, the precarity of daily living, and the growing impossibility of building any sort of community maroon each of us in our lonely struggle to survive. We are supposed to believe that we can only work to improve our lives on that same individual level.”
The individual level is where wellness products come into the picture; it’s Witte’s “anxiety economy,” built upon what he describes as “[products] we’re starting to take in our bodies, as well as lifestyle choices designed to help us kind of take back control.”
Taking back control is, ironically, why, around the same time, millennials had begun to question the concept of “chill” — at least as it applied to women, whose emotions have always been a subject of fascination, scorn, and marketing dollars. Writer Alana Massey’s 2015 viral essay “Against Chill” described shedding, once and for all, the expectation of men and society at large that women contain their emotions and desires:
To the uninitiated, having Chill and being cool are synonyms. They describe a person with a laid-back attitude, an absence of neurosis, and reasonably interesting tastes and passions. But the person with Chill is crucially missing these last ingredients because they are too far removed from anything that looks like intensity to have passions.
That seemed like a watershed moment for women’s ability to be emotionally honest in public and private. But then, the 2016 political landscape and Instagram’s endless need for pretty, curated content helped give birth to the market for pastel canned beverages, along with places like Chillhouse, a Manhattan destination for “modern self-care” where you can buy inner peace through manicures, facials, massages, and a $7 “Chill Me Out” latte that is full of adaptogens but no actual espresso.
While Dona founder Rothstein hasn’t made explicit claims to consumers that her new line of canned sodas — available in flavors like turmeric honeybush and juniper lime — will chill them out, both Cha Cha Matcha and Kin Euphorics loudly echo Recess’s marketing strategy. The former’s canned beverages are an extension of its cafes, which launched in New York City in 2016 and have since expanded to LA. The company was born the year after its founders, Matthew Morton and Conrad Sandelman, traveled to Japan to source ceremonial-grade matcha. Their idea was to repackage it as a chill caffeine alternative, something they did in brightly colored cafes that were presented as the opposite of “pretentious” coffee shops, says Michael McGregor, the company’s director of brand marketing.
McGregor says that Cha Cha Matcha doesn’t consider itself a wellness brand, but its recently launched line of canned iced teas — with pastel hues and flavors like activated charcoal matcha and ginger turmeric — hits all of the aesthetic and ingredient marks of the wellness beverage genre. And McGregor recognizes that people seeking “chill” might pick up a can along their journey to anxiety reduction. “Chill is a big part of contemporary culture, probably for a lot of reasons,” he says. “I feel like we’re living in a time of high anxiety and as an antidote to that, people are looking for all sorts of ways to calm themselves, whether that be yoga, adaptogens, or more exercise.”
Kin Euphorics, meanwhile, embraces “wellness” with enthusiasm; born and still lodged firmly in the nightlife realm, it is, per its website, “All Bliss, No Booze.” Like Recess, the company launched in 2018. Its “Chief Euphorics Officer,” Jen Batchelor, says its big inspiration was her desire to go to the bar and have fun without intoxicants. “I was also just sort of seeing the detriments and destruction of alcohol for so many women in my life at that time,” she says.
Batchelor has a history in the wellness business and has studied ayurvedic medicine. Her last venture involved working with hotels to create wellness amenities for guests “beyond just, like, a dusty yoga mat in a closet,” Batchelor says; they included meditation with Deepak Chopra, built-in Pelotons, and “minibar cleanups” that removed the usual junk food. Some hotels’ practice of offering “red or white” upon check-in, regardless of the time of day, was one of the common examples of casual alcohol consumption that piqued Batchelor’s interest in changing the mindset of drinking to unwind (a strategy that the cannabis industry has also adopted).
Kin has actively — not just aesthetically — zeroed in on women; the brand, its website says, “believes in a night where social isn’t sinful and self-care doesn’t stop at sunset.” The equation of alcohol with “sin” brings to mind diet language — the use of “guilt” and “naughtiness” to shame women for seeking pleasure. During our phone call, Batchelor told me that the husband of one of her brand ambassadors likes to see her crack open a can of the drink at night — because, she said, “he knows he’ll get lucky.”
Although it’s a new-wave beverage, Kin’s messaging echoes retrograde ways of thinking about women’s behavior. Batchelor conveniently couches it in her concerns for women’s hormone and cortisol levels — which Kin claims are balanced through its blend of the adaptogen rhodiola (a threatened medicinal herb, as listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature), GABA, 5-HTP, citicoline, and tyrosine (nootropics). Hibiscus, gentian, and licorice are also added.
Both Batchelor’s language and Kin’s marketing echo the wellness industry’s more general efforts to appeal to women. Amanda Mull, a writer who covers consumerism, has noticed how wellness brands specifically target them, whether they do so explicitly in their messaging or not. “I think that wellness as the consumer industry we know now was created as a way for health and weight-loss brands to market their products as ‘lifestyle’ experiences for women,” Mull tells me.
Over the last decade, she says, an explosion in social media marketing and “changing social narratives around women’s bodies” created problems for marketers peddling weight-loss shakes and diet pills. “Many of their traditional consumers were starting to tire of hearing such explicit messages around losing weight at all costs, and products that can’t be proudly displayed on Instagram by their users can’t be as easily introduced to young women,” Mull says. “That’s how we got to the point where wellness products, including matcha and euphorics and CBD sodas, are all sort of blandly pretty and pastel, and they come with promises of vague-but-wholesome health effects. Balance, calm — nothing too active or aggressive.”
Both Kin and Recess build their own promises of vague-but-wholesome health effects on adaptogens, ingredients that usually have a place in the realms of herbalism and naturopathy. When combined with soothing colors and winsome fonts, they are effective in selling “calm” and “bliss” — or “chill” — words that encapsulate these companies’ respective definitions of wellness. The question is why people, namely women, need to be sold these feelings, to the tune of more than $4 trillion.
Writer James Hamblin asked that question in a 2018 Atlantic piece about the Wellspring festival, which brought together yoga, celebrity speakers, and activities like CBD oil massages. He noted that while the wellness movement “in theory” democratizes access to health by cutting doctors and costly for-profit health care out of the equation, a ticket to that specific event was $1,000. Rare, too, is a yoga or meditation session that costs less than $15, which is actually low when one considers that a therapy session in the United States can easily cost upward of $100. Canned beverages promising chilled-out herbs could seem like the missing piece of the democratizing-wellness puzzle, but a four-pack of Kin Spritz is $27 and a six-pack of Recess costs $29.99. Chill isn’t cheap, which is what makes it good business, but it’s also elusive and ill-defined.
That’s why herbalists like Corbett, of Rowan and Sage, are dubious. Corbett’s practice involves talking to clients about what is bothering them, physically and mentally, and providing lifestyle and movement practices, herbal supplements, and dietary plans. She places a strong emphasis on “food as medicine.”
“We’re in a resurgence of green allopathy these days,” Corbett says, referring to the treatment of symptoms with “natural” quick-fix medicinal products. “One of the biggest things that consumers don’t understand about herbalism is that to actually get an effect that you want to get, you need to be taking a therapeutic dose and you need to be taking it probably for a long period of time. So one can of adaptogenic tea isn’t going to make a difference for you if you’re experiencing the symptoms that they’re actually indicated for.”
Corbett says that a company selling an adaptogenic beverage reached out to her recently, but when she asked them about their sourcing methods, they promptly “ghosted” her, leading her to question the product’s integrity. And although she’s pro-cannabis, she doesn’t use CBD in her practice because she doesn’t agree with the practice of isolating a single component from a plant; in many cases, she says, certain products function as Band-Aids applied to the root cause of a problem.
Recess’s packaging doesn’t mention CBD. Instead, it advertises its use of “hemp extract,” which can comprise multiple cannabinoids, including CBD. Each can of Recess contains 10 milligrams of broad-spectrum hemp oil — and this varying nomenclature points to the layer of semantic confusion spread on top of the murky legalities surrounding CBD. It is still unclear what the 2018 Farm Bill did and didn’t legalize regarding industrial hemp production, and it’s illegal to add CBD to food and drink both on the federal level and in New York City specifically. Current science is dubious on the potential impact of CBD, and there’s evidence that the placebo effect may also play a role in patient outcomes. That’s something mainstream science and herbalists like Corbett agree upon.
“If someone is feeling anxious and they want to take CBD, it might help them in the moment. But why are they anxious?” Corbett says. “Is it a psychological imbalance? Is it that they’re really deficient in B vitamins, or they’re not eating enough protein, or all of these other things that they might never discover if they just get hooked on a trendy supplement?” She is adamant that these beverages are an “exploitation of plants for profit,” and later adds that “there’s so much we can do before we bring in supplements and herbs. So someone just wants to eat something tasty, fine, but know what you’re getting. Have a reasonable set of expectations.”
And there’s not enough known about how to scale products that use medicinal herbs, some of which are threatened. Not even kombucha has been immune to marketplace exploitation: Coca-Cola recently invested $20 million in Health-Ade, while the PepsiCo-owned KeVita Master Brew Kombucha is just a sparkling water combined with probiotics, added sugar, and flavorings that provoked a class action lawsuit about the definition of “kombucha.” And in a dispute stretching all the way back to 2012, a Massachusetts beverage company sent herbalists into a tizzy by trademarking the name of a well-known and openly shared recipe known as fire cider; it eventually lost the case.
The business of “wellness,” whether old- or new-school, continues to boom, arguably thanks in large part to the anxiety economy, the high cost of health care, and our accompanying desire for easy (and affordable) fixes to big problems. Patterns that began in the tumult and stress of 2016 could reach even greater heights with next year’s presidential election, creating new avenues for capital that appeal to generational and gender-based fears. All that intensity could have the “wellness ideology” coming for us all, one $5 beverage at a time — because even if chill can’t be canned, it will be commodified.
But that’s only if solutions to generational anxiety continue to be packaged as individual consumer choices, ripe for plucking off a shelf or ordering online. With kombucha and fire cider, one sees the possibility for “wellness” in the form of freely shared recipes made with grocery-store ingredients or the SCOBYs offered through Facebook fermentation groups. Perhaps sticking to tried-and-true community-based recipes for health was the chill we needed all along.