Formulating Functional Drinks with a Focus on Sports Beverages

March 28, 2008

Crowded shelves and the continued onslaught of new product introductions present functional-beverage marketing and R&D professionals with a daunting task—how to make their beverage products stand out. These days, a growing number of manufacturers are looking to differentiate their products by addressing health concerns through fortification, specifically by combining multiple ingredients into drinks. This trend is fueling the emergence of many new drink categories to serve specific demographic audiences and to address health concerns.

The functional-beverage category continues to generate new and exciting concepts, such as energy and functional drinks with “added value” ingredients. Many of these ingredients, particularly antioxidants, B-complex vitamins, some minerals, and herbal extracts, are now available to meet specific needs of beverage manufacturers. However, making a drink goes beyond adding some functional ingredients and mixing them up. Formulation concepts, ingredient selection, processing and packaging, and test marketing are key to a quality product that is stable and tastes good.

A beverage concept is defined in terms of target population and a particular nutritional profile, such as meal-replacement drinks, soft drinks, juice-based blends, sports/performance drinks, flavored coffees and teas, pre- and probiotic drinks, and dairy drinks. The acceptability of a product is an important predictor of product success in the marketplace. However, it is a subjective process because acceptability can change according to the targeted consumer. For example, meal-replacement drinks should be palatable to someone on a liquid diet, but not as pleasurable as a sugar-laden, fruit-flavored tea or energy beverage aimed at younger consumers.

The speed of product innovation and new product introduction has significantly increased as functional drinks have become more mainstream. Even with fast-track product development, many companies are using ingredients that have a scientific foundation and a strong safety record to back them up rather than using the “ingredients of the moment.” This is in part because consumers are demanding that the product they are buying can actually deliver on its health claim. Examples of high-demand ingredients being used in drink formulation are taurine, caffeine, antioxidants, lycopene, pre- and probiotics, whey protein isolates containing branched-chain amino acids, and botanical extracts.

So how should a manufacturer approach drink formulation, considering today’s needs? Start by prioritizing the benefit of a particular ingredient in a given beverage. To be credible, a drink should offer a minimum concentration of active components to ensure a measurable benefit. It is also easy to focus on active ingredients and overlook the importance of the underlying foundation properties of the drink. Many of the active ingredients contribute metallic or bitter flavors. Hence acidity, saltiness, and sweetness should be carefully balanced to optimize a drink’s taste and flavor profile. Despite the quest for functionality, the single greatest predictor of a new drink’s success is taste, not its functional ingredients.

When identifying ingredients, it is also important to consider usage of multifunctional ingredients. For example, sugar functions as a sweetener, osmotic-balancing agent, and energy source. Similarly, glycerol is a sweetener, energy source, osmotic balancing agent, and muscle dehydration preservative. Phosphate salts contribute free phosphate molecules and isotonic balance, and also buffer acid—important for microbial and color stability and flavor release.

When it comes to sports beverages, there are a variety of different applications that have been developed to meet the specific needs of the consumer. Historically, this market had early success with the development and marketing of superfood-type beverage powders directed exclusively to the body-building community to supply the need for high-protein and high-energy anabolic products, which continue to appeal to this market niche. Performance-enhancing products have captured the attention of a much wider audience in recent years. The leading applications in this area are noncarbonated beverages based on the prototype Gatorade-type sport drinks and the pioneering Red Bull–type energy drinks. These drinks continue to enjoy huge market success and double-digit growth.

Lastly, the health benefits, energy-boosting capabilities, and hydrating quality of sports drinks should continue to make them attractive to domestic consumers, who are increasingly growing tired of sugary carbonates and looking for alternatives. Another factor that may aid the growth of sports drinks’ performance is that many manufacturers are working to transform sports drinks from specialist products to everyday beverages.

Ram Chaudhari, PhD, FACN, CNS, is Fortitech's (Schenectady, NY) senior executive vice president and chief scientific officer. For more information about Fortitech, visit www.fortitech.com or call 800/950-5156.