What do we mean by vitamin functional drinks? Ever seen one of these bad boys?

You can find vitamin functional drinks (this is what we’ll call them, based on how they commonly self-identify, and for lack of a better term) like this in convenience stores all over Asia. Some are for energy, some are for immunity against diseases. Some are Japanese turmeric-boosted hangover cures, and some are full of fish collagen protein to make your skin and nails silky smooth. As a kid, I would have my mom drive me to the Asian supermarket in my town, and I’d pick up huge stores of these weird little drinks. I downed them before practicing kung fu, hoping for mysterious Chinese powers (it was a pretty misguided time in my life).

It’s been a long time since those days, and I’d all but forgotten about our small-bottled friends. Now that I live in China where they’re constantly available, it seemed like a good idea to get back in touch. So I went down the street to the Family Mart and told ‘em to give me the mix:

Now I’m going to drink them and see how it goes. I’ll explain the intended purpose of each, the taste, and the effect on me the drinker.

1. Lipovitan

The drink: It doesn’t get the credit it deserves, but Lipovitan (力保健 – Force Preserve Health) is kind of the OG energy drink, having been introduced to the market in 1962. That’s more than ten years before the first versions of Red Bull hit the market in Thailand, and more than two decades before the Red Bull we know today came onto the scene. Produced by the Taisho Pharmaceutical Company in Tokyo, it seems to be pretty much the same thing. Taurine, arginine, caffeine…you’re gonna be awake.

The taste: Have you ever had the original Thai Red Bull? The thing that will strike you about it is that it’s not carbonated. Lipovitan is in the same boat, a kind of sticky, syrupy, medicinal, and weirdly Japanese-tasting yellow liquid. It does not scream health. Not terrible though.

The verdict: Actually, I can stand behind this. It’s small and gives you a bit of a lift, without the hardcore buzz and frat bro vibes of a hulking 16 oz. can of Monster. Endorsed.

2. Lipovitan Girl Version

The drink: Were you excited by the idea of consuming Lipovitan, but worried that your two X chromosomes would render it impossible? We’ve got good news. Specially branded Lipovitan for girls, with extra iron to stop your extremities from getting cold, a condition which is overwhelmingly seen here as women-specific. It’s here, it’s pink, it’s gender-based marketing at its finest.

The taste: Actually, lowkey pretty tasty. The floral notes really do a good job of masking the Japanese medicine drink taste. The vitamin functionality, this time, is wrapped in a seductive, feminine rose flavor. It goes down smooth, so you can be your best self, and leave him wanting more. Lipovitan Girl Version — release your inner goddess.

The verdict: Aside from the painfully unnecessary “this one is for girls” marketing stance, I like this drink. In fact, if it has the same amount of energy-boosting nutrients as original MANLY Lipovitan, I’ll drink this one instead. Plus my toes are absolutely tingling with iron and heat.

3. Crystal Sugar Pear Puree

The drink: I double checked with the cashier at Family Mart to make sure there were health benefits and vitamin functionality to be had here. She picked up the bottle, squinted, and said “Yeah. It’s good for your cough.” That sounded ambiguous to me, because everything in China from hot water to dried hawthorn disks can be good for your cough, but I’m a sucker for pear, so here we go.

The taste: Absolutely delicious. It tastes like premium, organic pear-flavored baby food, in the best possible way. It’s like drinking apple sauce, but pear. In fact, the taste is so good, and so unencumbered by the lurking medicinal flavors of vitamin functionality, that I started to doubt if there was anything really special about it at all.

The verdict: Feels like I drank really good pear juice. No noticeable health power-ups to speak of. Will probably buy again though, because that was delicious.

4. Wanji American Ginseng Oral Liquid

The drink: Let’s break it down. Wanji – the brand. American ginseng – the herb, native to North America and different than the more commonly used ginseng in China. Oral – you’re gonna use your mouth to consume it (phew). Liquid – you don’t need to chew this drink. Wild American ginseng is valued to the point that some states have declared it a threatened or endangered species. But that doesn’t stop it from being canned up by Wanji Group and distributed across China, where people drink it to fight stress and fatigue, and to boost the immune and digestive systems.

The taste: Musky, like the forgotten contents of some elk-horn flask in your grandpa’s basement. But kind of refreshing, and not overpowering. It makes me feel like a halfway point between Ernest Hemingway and a 65-year-old Shanghainese man. It is on the complete opposite end of the imaginary gender-taste spectrum from Lipovitan Girl Version.

The verdict: I feel alert! Not buzzing with caffeine and impulsivity, but it’s a nice refreshment, for the gullet and for the mind. I feel like if I were to drink this every day I might actually experience some health benefits, and this is the only one on the list I can say that for so far.

5. Hawthorn Lotus Leaf Paste

The drink: This one marks a departure from our previous beverages. It’s not a small bottle or can, but a single-serve sachet of paste from hawthorn and lotus plants. Empty it into hot water and stir to make a tea. Hawthorn and lotus have both been used to boost the circulatory system (I imagine it’s also good for your cough), but the point here is weight loss and calming relaxation. Lotus leaf has been used for its sedative and chilled-out euphoric qualities.

The taste: Sweet, hot, and easy to drink. An herbal, kind of berry-tasting tea.

The verdict: This was probably one of the most meditative cups of tea I’ve drunk in a while. I wasn’t even aware of the ingredients’ known effects until after I’d already identified a tranquil sense of calm creeping up on me, so it seems to be more than a placebo. It’s kind of like those purple Mellow Mood drinks they sell at gas stations in the states, but with more identifiable ingredients. I feel like if I were to drink this before going to bed every night I’d sleep like a peaceful, happy old man.

So there we have it. Finally got to the bottom of some of these mysterious, ubiquitous little drinks. And I can say, I will likely be coming back for more. Aside from the back-to-back bodily whirlwind of gender incongruity, ginseng highs, and lotus leaf lows, that all went better than expected. I viewed these drinks as their own weird little world, but I can see how they’d fit right into our fast-paced modern lives. Join us next time, where we probably eat and compare all the instant noodles, or something like that.