I ask Hughes for a rebuttal, and he points to a study in which N-acetylcysteine was applied directly to rodent liver cells. The rats showed a decline in acetaldehyde, which is a derivative of alcohol. But it’s a big leap to assume that human livers would react similarly to N-acetylcysteine infused in a health drink.
“At the end of the day, we are not a pharmaceutical company,” Hughes concedes. “We’re not trying to live up to those standards.” Unlike other beverages, Function makes claims to functionality that are based in Western science, he says. That science may not prove that the ingredients will work like they are supposed to, but it does imply that, in theory, they could.
And it’s possible that one or more of Function’s ingredients do work. N-acetylcysteine could be the modern-day coca-leaf extract, which was still poorly understood by scientists when Coca-Cola launched its “ideal brain tonic.” But Nathanson, the Beverage Spectrum publisher, is skeptical. He knows Hughes and many other executives in the industry and has found a universal disinclination among these leaders to examine the effectiveness of their drinks objectively. “When you look at SoBe, it’s sweetened crap,” Nathanson says. “All these beverages are just sugar water. No one has been able to show that the products work. And I want to temper what I say because some of these guys are my friends and advertisers, but at the same time I’ve got to be real.”
Since Hughes moved into his apartment at 71st and First, he has been meeting with distributors in an effort to persuade them to do on a large scale what he had been doing in individual stores: arranging the bottles in just the right order.
“We have a beachhead here,” he says. “So now it’s a matter of looking at what regions are performing well, which are not performing up to potential, and then adjusting the facts on the ground. And what we’ve found is if we can fine-tune the right bottles for the location, we have stratospheric success.”
As for the heart-healthy proto-beverage I tasted, Function has gone through six more iterations of the drink, trying some ten new flavors each time.
“We haven’t hit on a name yet,” Hughes says. “We’re looking for something that combines the best of both worlds—that gives consumers a shove in the direction of what it does but retains some mystery.”
Give away too much scientific detail at once, he says, and the drink loses its mystery. “I imagine that’s what any doctor deals with. How you make basic health information exciting?
“You definitely feel the temptation to totally blow it out of the water—to make it sexier than it is. Lots of products do that with their advertising. But if you are dealing with fundamental science, you have to get a little more creative.”