Hughes creates all the drinks, working with Wild Flavors, a food-science company near Cincinnati that takes the functional ingredients Hughes wants to use and designs a recipe that will mask or complement their taste. Once he and the flavor experts work out a few possible mixtures, Hughes brings the prototypes to the main office for a tasting.
Though I have agreed not to disclose the details of the drink being discussed at this meeting, I can say that it is meant to assist in keeping the heart healthy. Hughes slides folders to each person around the table.
“This is research that I’ve been following for a while now,” Hughes says, placing a hand over the papers in the right half of his folder. “If we can figure out a way to make this work in a drink, I think this could be a great way for people to have access to a potentially life-improving, or longevity-improving, product.”
The employees open their folders and thumb through piles of scientific papers that suggest that the high consumption of an unusual food could prevent heart disease. “Now, to be fair,” Hughes continues, “I’ve included two studies that show no effect.” He taps the smaller stack in the left side of the folder. “But they were both short-term.” The big question, Hughes says, is whether customers will buy a product whose main health benefit won’t manifest itself for years.
This was precisely the problem with Youth Trip, a recently retired Function drink claiming to help maintain healthy skin. “People wanted instant gratification,” Dayton Miller later explains. Sales were unsatisfying, and the team is wary about launching another long-lead product.
The employees take sips of the four offerings and announce their favorites.
Hughes restates the question at hand: “Is this relevant to our customers? I mean, with Urban Detox we can say, ‘If you feel run-down, take this.’ But this … ”
“I think it hits an older demographic,” says Annie Imamura, the company publicist.
“Should we just have the label say function geri in cursive—for geriatric?” Hughes jokes. “I do think this has the potential to just be one of those small, everyday things that make people healthier.”
“The question I’m going to get is, ‘How do I know?’ ” says Joey Steger, Function’s promotion director, who maintains an even tan and whose blond hair gels into a forward-sweeping faux-hawk.
“At the end of the day, we are not a pharmaceutical company,” Hughes concedes. “We’re not trying to live up to those standards.”
“Show them this,” says Liz Kollar, head of national accounts, banging the folder of science onto the table.
The team contemplates how best to satisfy their customers’ skepticism. How can they cram all the science onto the label? Or how do they write a confident assertion that doesn’t smell like pseudoscience?
“I mean, you can see if you just look at this,” Steger says, opening his folder to the two piles of research papers. “How thick this side is”—the favorable research—“compared to this side.”
Hughes clears his throat and smiles. “Well, I kind of stacked it that way.” Then he has an idea. “What if we had a seal from the American Heart Association?”
“Oh,” Steger says. “That would go so far.”
The “enhanced water” section of the beverage industry has grown enormously since Hughes started toying with N-acetylcysteine in his kitchen. Function competes not just with Vitaminwater (whose parent company was purchased by Coca-Cola for $4.1 billion last year) but with SoBe Life Water and Propel (both owned by PepsiCo), Snapple Antioxidant Water, 24C Vitamin Enhanced Water, Vitamin+Fiber Water, H2Om (which “infuses” its water with positive words and music)—and maybe soon, Placenta 10000, a Japanese product that contains elements of swine afterbirth that are said to stave off wrinkles.
There is no scientific consensus that any of these are effective. When I ask Dayton Miller why people continue to buy enhanced water if the product doesn’t deliver any health benefits, he responds quickly. “It’s 100 percent marketing. That’s why we keep stressing that we are created by physicians.” Technically, Hughes is the only doctor on staff. But on a balmy morning a few days after the Function taste test, Hughes drives to Englewood, New Jersey, to meet with Robert and Jennifer Ashton, members of Function’s medical-advisory board. It’s a formal but unpaid panel that includes some friends of the Function principals’. None of the eight doctors formally specialize in nutrition. Nonetheless, they know more about health than admen, and Function considers this group a quasi-peer-review board.
They meet in Jennifer Ashton’s new, environmentally friendly gynecology office. The Ashtons have the appearance of a couple who manage to make plenty of money while getting plenty of sleep. (Both appear as medical experts on Fox News, and look the part.) As Jennifer prepares lattes, Hughes explains his plans for the new healthy-heart beverage. Robert, chief of thoracic surgery at the Hackensack University Medical Center, has immediate thoughts about one of the antioxidant ingredients.