Consumers are gravitating toward beverages with functional benefits—and fortunately, new ingredients and technological achievements have advanced the offerings. “Functional beverages have come a long way from when bodybuilders used to crack six raw eggs into a glass and chug it,” agreed Deirdre Piggott, Sensient Flavors’ technical director, sweet and beverage flavors, North America.
Christina Wood, sales and marketing director at OptiBiotix Health Plc, credited the application of science for helping the market evolve “from its early stages of vitamin- or energy-boosting refreshments to offer reliable health-management tools.”
Michael Bush, executive director at Kerry for Wellmune and GanedenBC30®, also gave a nod to research, advising, “A quality functional ingredient should be backed by peer-reviewed, published clinical evidence providing proof of the ingredient’s efficacy and safety while providing support to validate stated claims.” He also noted the importance of using ingredients that “support a benefit-driven message that consumers can understand and trust.”
Wood, too, acknowledged consumers at the center of the category’s growth. “Busier lifestyles are driving the need for convenient preparations that allow people to manage well-being on the move.” Specifically, she said consumers are looking for “options featuring natural ingredients such as tea extracts and bacterial strains,” and that the products serve a wide variety of wellness needs. “Whether vitamin or ‘enhanced’ water to fend off illness, energy drinks to combat fatigue or sports drinks to aid exercise, they provide the multipurpose value expected by today’s informed, yet time-poor consumer.”
Brian Zapp, director of marketing at Applied Food Sciences (AFS), pointed to a 2017 Innova Market Insights Report on functional drinks, which stated nearly 30 percent of beverages launched worldwide in 2016 positioned themselves as functional beverages. “Of those launches, the top categories included fortifications in vitamins, protein, energy, gut health and antioxidants, in that order,” he said.
Stacy Dill, marketing director at Kemin Health, also cited industry growth: “In the past five years, functional beverage product launches have increased 19 percent globally, and we expect this trend to continue.”
Andrew Wheeler, corporate director of marketing at FutureCeuticals, said the criteria for functional beverages has expanded from taste, convenience and affordability to include health, wellness/function and sustainability.
Part of the shift is due to public education. Christiane Lippert, head of marketing (food) at Lycored, maintained, “there’s been a lot of progress when it comes to consumer awareness.” She added, “Nielsen has just published research showing that the growing popularity of functional ingredients like probiotics is driving growth in the beverage category.”
Hiroki Himeno, Ph.D., part of the fine chemical sales department at Glico Nutrition Co. Ltd., said one of the best things about the uptick in product innovation is “consumers can choose functional drinks according to their own trends and purposes.”
However, figuring out what consumers want is a challenge. Pam Stauffer, global marketing programs manager at Cargill, referenced the 2017 Food and Health Survey from the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation, which reported 96 percent of respondents want health benefits from their food and beverages. “But just what constitutes ‘healthy?’” she asked. “According to that same survey, 88 percent of consumers view vitamin D as healthful, followed by fiber (87 percent), whole grains (84 percent) and protein from plant sources (72 percent).
“One way we see this play out is in the growth of the alternative protein beverage segment.” Stauffer stated. “No longer the sole purview of the sports nutrition market, today consumers from all walks of life are snapping up dairy-free protein beverages.” She mentioned Packaged Facts research, which predicted that by 2021, the market for dairy-alternative beverages could account for 40 percent of the total combined $28 billion market for dairy and dairy-alternative beverages.
In terms of helping consumers find products that may be of interest, Mal Evans, Ph.D., scientific director at KGK Science Inc., identified several substantiated claims that can be used in the United States. “In the functional beverages sector, benefits in digestion, satiety and weight loss are popular among meal-replacement or weight loss beverages; energy drinks and sports drinks often promote increased hydration and energy; and plant-based drinks and teas support antioxidant and immune properties.”
Greg Paul, Ph.D., Dupont Nutrition & Health’s marketing director for beverages, affirmed that “functional beverages present an exciting and dynamic opportunity with today’s consumers.” Oliver Wolf, head of advertising/print media/exhibitions at GELITA, shared equal enthusiasm for the niche, noting, “There are few markets that thrive on innovation as much as the functional beverage market.”
A tall order
One of the grand ironies in making beverages healthier is the increase in technical challenges formulators must overcome. “The problem with functional ingredients is that, while they bring benefits with them, they don’t always taste great,” Piggott explained. “Proteins can bring mealy, sour or bitter off-notes, depending on the protein source; individual amino acids can carry some lovely ‘wet dog’ kinds of notes; vitamins and minerals can bring metallic and chalky notes; certain botanicals can add earthy notes. When you try sugar reduction on top of adding functional ingredients, you can also end up adding bitter, metallic notes and a lasting sweet linger from high-intensity sweeteners that may not be desirable.”
Taste considerations are only part of the battle. Vicky Fligel, senior product manager of functional systems at Glanbia Nutritionals, added, “There are also processing challenges around stability. It’s extremely important to work with ingredients specifically that can withstand certain heating conditions and provide a certain level of stability (color, flavor, suspension) over [the product’s] shelf life.”
And then there’s solubility, an issue Dill said is unique to beverages. “If an ingredient isn’t water soluble, it will appear cloudy or separate in clear beverages, which forces manufacturers to advise consumers to ‘shake well’ before drinking,” she explained.
Above all, a finished functional beverage product must carry a ”natural” look and feel. Lippert concurred: “When your product has a wellness positioning, it’s particularly important that it doesn’t look or taste artificial.”
Traditionally, technical issues have been addressed through a mix of solutions such as masking agents, added flavors or sugar. But some of those “fixes” won’t fly with today’s demanding consumers. “Such ingredients can compromise the integrity of a product in terms of its clean label status and health profile,” noted Kevin Kilcoyne, vice president and general manager of the Global Ingredients Group at Welch’s.
According to Alice Hirschel, Ph.D., technical business director at ABITEC, “Finding replacements for functional ingredients that meet the ‘natural’ and ‘clean label’ needs continues to be a challenge.” She added, “Replacement ingredients for solubilization and emulsification have a number of issues, including increased cost, increased dose and decreased functionality—all contributing to less-attractive product innovation.”
However, the market will respond. Paul Verderber, vice president of sales at Carolina Innovative Food Ingredients, maintained the consumer shift away from artificial and unfamiliar ingredients is here to stay. “This is one of the main drivers of the clean label movement, and part of what is creating a challenge for functional beverage formulators, who might now be pressured to remove ingredients from their products that they have worked with their whole careers—and the ingredients worked well,” he added.
Anne Louise Friis, business development manager at Arla Foods Ingredients, shared the sentiment. “What we meant by clean label five years ago is not the same as what it signifies today,” she explained. “Once upon a time, an ingredient was considered clean simply if it was derived from a natural source, but consumers now have more questions about the integrity of that source. OK, so the raw material is natural. But is it also wholesome and safe? That’s becoming just as important. Take whey protein, which is derived from cows’ milk. Shoppers might be on board in agreeing that milk is natural, but they’re now asking: ‘How was the milk produced?’ ‘How was it processed?’ Beverage companies need to be ready to answer those questions, and they can only do that if they ensure they source their ingredients from suppliers they can trust.”
Dill suggested the first challenge, then, in creating a successful functional beverage, is defining clean label. “There is no third-party standard for a clean label product, so it’s up to manufacturers to decide what their consumers will and will not accept in a beverage,” she said. “Most manufacturers can agree that a clean label means less on the label, especially when it comes to artificial colors and preservatives. These limitations challenge manufacturers to get creative when producing a visually appealing product with a sustainable shelf life. Many consumers also prefer products without GMOs (genetically modified organisms)”—yet another nod to sourcing ingredients from trusted suppliers.
Despite the challenges, Lippert maintained modern functional beverage formulation doesn’t necessarily mean making concessions. “There used to be a perception that [clean label] had to involve some sort of trade-off, but if you work with the right ingredients, you can have a simpler, more natural label on your beverage without compromising on other important factors, such as color stability,” she stated.
Despite Lippert’s optimism, one pivotal component continues to stretch the talents of formulators. According to Kate Sager, Ingredia Inc.’s marketing manager – America, “The natural sweetener movement has been the greatest challenge.” She continued, “Consumers do not want artificial, high-powered, low-calorie sweeteners, but they also want sugar reduction. At this point, there are a few options in the United States that seem to work well, but they have some undesirable characteristics.”
Thom King, president and CEO of Icon Foods, agreed sweeteners are an area to watch. “Many functional beverages contain more than 20 g of sugar and the sugar-free versions often contain Ace K (acesulfame potassium), sucralose or aspartame,” he said. “Consumers are creating a trend away from chemical-based sweeteners and majorly avoid added sugars.”
Hope on the horizon
Despite the intricacies of producing a winning functional beverage, many brands are successfully innovating—and likely not with their first prototype. “The key to overcoming technical challenges is to run trials in pilot plants,” Friis advised. “A beverage company may not have these facilities, but many ingredients suppliers do. Trial and error is the solution to creating the perfect end-product. It’s important not to be afraid to ‘fail’ in the early stages. In fact, it’s essential to identify any technical problems before a product is launched.”
A range of functional ingredients has been well-established in beverage formulations, Evans noted. “Probiotic bacteria, associated with gastrointestinal (GI), immunological and inflammatory benefits, are suitable for dairy- and plant-based carriers,” she detailed. “The most commonly incorporated bacterial strains include Lactobacillus acidophilus, L. rhamnosus, L. casci and Bifidobacterium bifidum. Commercial dairy beverages are often further enriched for the omega-3 fatty acids, α-linoleic acid, eicosapentaenoic acid [EPA] and docosahexanoic acid [DHA], useful in the regulation of lipid levels and cardiovascular markers. Moreover, dairy is frequently the carrier in fiber-fortified beverages containing fructooligosaccharides [FOS], β-glucans or inulins. Vitamins and minerals are easily added to dairy or plant-based beverages.”
Other ingredients on the rise include those that deliver a tangible effect. “Energy remains a key category with consumers forever on the search for a convenient pick-me-up,” Wheeler stated. “With the growing safety concerns surrounding synthetic caffeine due to the negative side effects (e.g., jitters and crash), and megadosing from energy drinks, consumers are searching for more natural, clean alternatives. “Millennials are looking for the value-add in energy. Obviously, it must still must deliver the ‘take it/feel it’ benefits of caffeine, but consumers also care about the journey of the ingredient.”
He pointed to FutureCeuticals’ Organic Coffeeberry® Energy—a patented botanical extract derived from coffee fruit and standardized to 70 percent natural caffeine, with the remaining 30 percent containing the polyphenols from the whole coffee fruit. Wheeler said it delivers caffeine with increased antioxidant protection.
Organic caffeine is also a focus at AFS. “We have seen a large push for beverage manufacturers to create energy products with natural or organic positioning,” Zapp shared. “Notable evidence has been well-publicized with the launches of AMP Organic, Rockstar Organic and even the acquisition of HiBall by AB Bev (Anheuser-Busch InBev). Yet, beyond these larger corporate examples, AFS has seen many creative startups and mid-sized companies approaching this space with novel concepts for cleaner energy drinks, and this category does not look like it will slow down anytime soon.”
Two best-sellers at AFS are PurCaf® organic caffeine from green coffee and PurTea™ organic caffeine from green tea. Zapp said both USDA certified organic offerings yield more than 90 percent caffeine content, are fully water soluble, have a more neutral taste profile, are Non-GMO Project Verified and GRAS (generally recognized as safe).
One of Ingredia’s star offerings is PRODIET® Fluid, a micellar casein specifically formulated for high protein beverages. Sager said it can be used in formulation up to 14 percent while keeping fluidity. The native milk protein isolate (MPI) in spray-dried powder comes from a nondenaturing membrane filtration process—a mechanical (nonchemical) protein extraction process that helps keep the intrinsic properties of the protein, including nutritional attributes and good rehydration. As a UHT-stable protein, PRODIET Fluid offers advantages for ready-to-drink (RTD) development.
Choosing the right technological functionality for a beverage application is crucial. Gencor has offerings that can increase the bioavailability and absorption of an ingredient. “LipiSperse is an innovative system tailored to enhance the dispersion of crystalline lipophilic agents in aqueous environments, such as the stomach,” shared Chase Shryoc, Gencor’s vice president of sales and business development. He added the technology allows a lipophilic ingredient to have ideal dispersion, which translates into enhanced absorption.
Another of the company’s novel options is AquaCelle, a lipid-based formulation that self-assembles into a micellar colloidal delivery system in watery environments. “These micelles are what envelop fat-soluble ingredients, helping their benefits to be absorbed more fully into the body,” Shryoc stated.
Let’s get personal
Surmising the future of functional beverages must include one of the hottest trends across the industry—personalized nutrition. Himeno suggested someone may develop a system for consumers to make the ultimate personalized drink to suit the need at hand, whether improving athletic performance or compensating for missing nutrition.
Dill concurred with the trend. “In a time where everyone wants items to be customized for his or her needs, we believe personalized beverages are in the near future,” she said. “Most personalized supplement companies offer recommendations based on an online survey. Some personalized nutrition companies will send a kit to the consumer asking for a cheek swab, a blood sample and even stool samples. The results from these companies are specifically tailored to the consumers. We predict this is the direction functional beverage will be headed in the future. Each beverage will be specific to the consumer, and delivered straight to his or her door.”
Strategic branding also allows brands to expand their borders, particularly as functional beverages become more widely accessible and accepted. Wood explained, “Whereas functional beverages designed for weight management have traditionally been targeted at women, their convenience and performance are creating greater popularity with the male demographic and transforming marketing strategies.” She offered the example of London-based meal-replacement shake brand GoFigure™, which “is currently undergoing a rebrand to appeal to this wider audience, using more muted color palettes to enable gender-neutral, on-the-go slimming.”
No matter the niche, Elaine Yu, president at Layn USA Inc., declared the future is bright for functional beverage. “Health will continue to be a key concern that will only grow in importance as we move through 2018,” she stated. “This is across every category. We will see companies try to reformulate their existing product offering to meet consumer needs or develop new products to differentiate themselves from the competition. Consumers want both quality and novelty in their beverage choices.”
Paul echoed the sentiment. “With the many available functional ingredients and technology to deliver them in an efficacious and tasty product, the opportunities are endless in today’s beverage market.”