Then And Now: How Lipovitan Became Japan's Modern Energy Drink
Image Credit: Lipovitan D

In 1960, the Taisho Pharmaceutical Company from Tokyo released the first ever drink made specifically to boost energy levels, or what we now know as energy drinks. The fluorescent-yellow liquid came in a brown bottle named Lipovitan-D. It tasted like a medicine, smelt like a medicine, and was not anything like the carbonated drinks we have today. But it changed the world in a significant way: humans knew energy drinks worked, and the success of Lipovitan would lead to an explosion of energy drinks, with Red Bull, 5-hour Energy etc. becoming a staple of 20th century (and 21stcentury) workaholics. 

In the 1950s, post-war Japan sees a rise in amphetamine use. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) noted that “amphetamines (or awakening drugs or wake-amines) were first put on sale in Japan about 1941. The drugs were not widely used to begin with, but only administered for the treatment of some cases of mental disease. During the Second World War, amphetamines were used by the armed forces and by civilians engaged in heavy work, for the purpose of keeping awake and dispelling torpor.” After the war, the prolonged use of these amphetamines became popular among people who working night shifts or irregular hours. At one point, amphetamines were even considered poisons under the Pharmaceutical Affairs Law of Japan. By the late 1950s, the government swung into action and passed laws that restricted the use of amphetamines severely.

Noble as that was, it created a void. The people worked night shifts and odd hours needed something safe that would keep them awake and energetic. In 1962, the Taisho Pharmaceutical Company released an “herbal energizing tonic” in a small bottle that fits into the palm of your hand or your trouser pocket. It was given the appearance of a cough syrup; it also looked and tasted like it too. It was also the first modern energy drink. 

The main ingredient in Lipovitan is taurine, an amino acid that is widely-distributed in animal tissues. It also contains sulfur. It is a major ingredient in bile and is found in the large intestine. The strong version of Lipovitan, LipovitanD, contains one gram of taurine, 20 mg of vitamin B3, 5 milligrams of vitamin B1, B2 and B6, and 50 mg of caffeine. Over time, the company would also release Lipovitan D Super, which has two grams of taurine and 300 mg of arginine, an amino acid that helps the body build protein. A Maxio version has 3000 mg of taurine! But the company makes it clear on the bottle: one must not consume more than 100 ml of this energy drink per day. For an unknown reason, a rumor was spread that taurine came from the sperm or urine of bulls. And no, that’s not true. The rumor is unfounded. 

As Japan’s economy picked up, so did Lipovitan sales. Factory workers, truck drivers and other such professionals used the energy drink as fuel to meet targets and deadlines. As Japan’s economy grows, Japanese workers are sent abroad to expand business. Some of them go to Thailand and take their beloved Lipovitan along with them. LO and behold, the drink takes off in Thailand too. But the taste is not a hit. One Thai businessman finds giving his own spin to taurine made it taste better, and names it Krating Daeng, which translates to Red Guar, or Red Bull. In 1984, an Austrian businessman has a bottle of Krating Daeng ono a long-haul flight. The marketing executive, Dietrich Mateschitz, is stunned when he realizes he has no jet lag. Read that again: he had no jet lag. He tracks down the maker of the drink, Chaleo Yoovidhya, and proposes they manufacture a version that will suit European tastes. What were the changes? More sugar, more caffeine and ship the drink in cans instead of bottles. 

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic Ocean, mid-1980s USA is desperately seeking an alternative to coffee. A drink called Jolt Cola, with twice the caffeine levels, is the first significantenergy drink. By 1987, Red Bull is released in Austria, and its popularity explodes. By 1997, the massive success of Red Bull can no longer be ignored. The drink is introduced in the US market and quickly becomes a hit with college students (who find it mixes well with vodka).Red Bull eschews mainstream marketing and chooses to align with extreme sports and adventure sports.Red Bull soon becomes a household name, and was so successful that when Chaleo died in 2010, he was Thailand’s third wealthiest individual. Lipovitan continues to have a smaller, loyal following in its home market; its fortunes wax and wane with the fortunes of the Japanese economy. But there’s no denying that the staid Lipovitan played a major role in getting the world hooked on the energy drink.