One Question Quiz
Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

KaiJune 28, 2023

The playground demand for Prime energy drinks, explained

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

They’re partially banned in New Zealand for health reasons, and can go for upward of $20 a bottle. So why are some primary school-aged children going to such extreme lengths to get their hands on them?

The black market, in some cases, can be surprisingly colourful. Behind school playground swings and underneath monkey bars across the country, boldly hued bottles and cans in fantastical-sounding flavours like ice pop and meta moon are being talked about, tasted and traded in a frenzied manner by children.

The drinks at the centre of this are Prime Hydration and Prime Energy. “Hydration”, marketed as a sports drink and launched in 2022, is made up of 10% coconut water, along with electrolytes, B vitamins and muscle-building amino acids BCAAs. It has, according to the makers, zero added sugar or caffeine. “Energy”, the energy drink variety, was launched earlier this year and contains a massive amount of caffeine. The caffeinated energy drink is not intended for customers who are under the age of 18, the company says on its website. In fact, because of its high caffeine content, Prime Energy is banned for sale in New Zealand. 

Still, both the caffeinated and non-caffeinated version of the drink have become a status symbol among school-aged children, sparking black-market deals in playgrounds, sold-out stock online, school bans and some paying upward of $20 for empty bottles. We asked some experts to explain the craze behind the illicit drinks.

Where are kids getting the drinks from?

Mostly, it seems from relatives returning from overseas (where Prime is easier to source) and online marketplaces like Facebook, Amazon and Temu

Hugo, 11, just got his first bottle of Prime Hydration (the non-banned drink) from his grandparents, who brought it back from a trip to the Gold Coast. His grandad went so far as driving to a seedy part of Surfer’s Paradise to go to a small supermarket down an alleyway to track it down for him.

Unlike the caffeine-filled Energy varieties, the Hydration drinks aren’t banned in New Zealand (although, he notes they’re not allowed to have them at school). Hugo was so desperate for a bottle of the stuff because “all my friends have it” and he turned to the overseas market because “it’s very, very, very hard to find here”. 

A friend of his has even managed to acquire 37 bottles which were brought back from America by a family member. “He’s drunk a lot of it but he’s still got a lot left,” says Hugo. 

Two children with smuggled Prime drinks. (Image: Supplied)

But the caffeine-filled ones are banned in Aotearoa right?

Yes, but despite the local ban, it’s not impossible to find the illicit beverage. Hugo managed to secure one for $15 from an Auckland dairy a couple of months ago and on the day of publication there were multiple bottles and cans of Prime Energy for sale on Facebook Marketplace.

Why have the drinks become so popular?

The fanfare surrounding the drinks is in large part fuelled by their celebrity backers. Prime was launched by two prominent YouTubers, Logan Paul and KSI. The sometimes-controversial pair share more than 40 million YouTube subscribers between them, and their marketing of the drink to their own audience on social media, along with other content creators attempting to gain clicks by associating themselves with the drinks, have helped Prime gain status.

In January this year, Paul said the drink had generated US$250 million in retail sales worldwide, with US$45 million of that in January 2023 alone.

How long has this craze been going on for?

It started in the UK last year. One nondescript off-licence in Wakefield, ‘Wakey Wines’, went viral for selling bottles for £20 (around $40), with punters coming from all over the UK to spend up large at the TikTok-famous shop. In New Zealand, the craze has been going for “about four months,” Hugo estimates. But, like all fads, he doesn’t see it sticking around: “Probably in like two months it’ll be over.” 

Is the obsession tied up with fandom surrounding these YouTubers?

In some cases, Prime has become a way for devoted fans of these YouTube personalities to show loyalty, but for others, the interest is less about celebrity fandom and more about socialising, curiosity and status. 

Hugo’s friends, he explains, are simply obsessed with the rare drink, and whether it’s relaying how many bottles someone has, discourse surrounding the best flavours or persistent nagging for those hoarding the drinks to share, Prime is a daily topic of conversation at school. 

Mae, 10, hasn’t tried the drinks yet, but “really, really want[s] to”. She shared with The Spinoff that she isn’t a big fan of the YouTubers, rather her interest in the drinks comes from “how popular it is”. She elaborates: “Everyone is having it and I really want to try, because some people are saying good reviews and some people have been saying bad reviews and also the packaging.”

Bottles and cans of the banned Prime Energy for sale on Facebook Marketplace.

What do they taste like?

The Hydration range comes in nine flavours: blue raspberry, grape, ice pop, lemonade, lemon lime, orange, strawberry watermelon, tropical punch and, perhaps most intriguingly, “meta moon”. Meanwhile, Prime Energy comes in seven: blue raspberry, ice pop, lemon lime, orange mango, strawberry watermelon, tropical punch and a UK-exclusive “KSI flavour” (apparently mango).

The flavour Hugo has tried is lemon and lime, and his evaluation is “it’s beautiful – it tastes like lemonade but not fizzy”. The Spinoff deputy editor Alice Neville – Hugo’s aunt – has also tried it, and describes the flavour as “foul”. Hugo adds that there’s general consensus that blue raspberry and meta moon are the best flavours. 

Mae has heard through the grapevine that tropical punch and blue raspberry are the best. What about lemon and lime? “That’s mid.” And ice pop? “That’s very overrated.” 

Why exactly is Prime Energy banned in NZ?

“Because it has too much caffeine,” says Mae. The Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) code restricts how much caffeine can be added to drinks and allows for the maximum amount of caffeine in a drink to be 32mg per 100ml. A can of Prime Energy contains almost double the legal limit, with 56mg per 100ml or 200mg per can. 

Auckland University of Technology professor of nutrition Elaine Rush (who attended primary school 60 years ago) is particularly alarmed by the effects of the high levels of caffeine and artificial sweeteners in the drinks on children. “Children are smaller than adults, so the dose effect will be higher,” she says, and that’s especially worrying “at what is such a delicate time of growth”. She points to uncertainty around the long-term impacts of these ingredients on children, along with existing research around caffeine’s impact on young people which shows it may slow or increase heart rate and cause headaches, shakes, sleeplessness and irritability.

“It has too much caffeine for kids,” agrees Mae’s younger brother Emil, 6. Mae expands, saying, “if you have that much caffeine you can get sick and some kids have bad reactions to Prime and have got sent to the hospital because of it”. Because of the dangers, Mae says she wouldn’t drink the caffeine-filled drink. And Emil is unequivocal about whether or not you’ll ever find a can in his hands: “heck no”.

AUT nutrition professor Elaine Rush (Photo: Supplied)

Are there instances of kids selling the drink to other kids?

Yes. In fact, Hugo has heard of some selling “just the bottle not with the drink in it for $5”. 

Why would somebody buy an empty plastic bottle?

Some empty bottles are for sale on Facebook Marketplace for between $20 to $100 each. According to Mae, that’s “because the bottle is the most famous part and the bottle has a really good logo” – not dissimilar to a collectible object or limited edition art print. “Because it’s so rare in New Zealand, people will pay anything to get just the bottle because they can show off and sell for more profit,” she adds.

Keep going!