Eye-opener: Consumers embrace coffee drinks as platforms for functional nutrition

Formulation and opportunities for functional coffees are endless.

Like a piping-hot press-pot full of freshly brewed French roast, activity in the RTD coffee space is, in a word, robust. Refrigerated options alone posted growth of nearly 20% for the 52 weeks ending May 17, 2020, with steady growth projected through at least 2025, according to Chicago-based market-research firm IRI.

And it’s a sure bet that plenty of the products driving that growth fall into the class of creamy, candy-sweet concoctions that resemble dessert more than they do a morning pick-me-up.

But another contributor, observes Ilana Orlofsky, senior marketing manager at beverage-development company Imbibe (Niles, IL), are coffees “with health-oriented benefits,” as a growing cadre of category disruptors is capitalizing on coffee’s better-for-you cred by using it as a base for functional formulation.

And they’re doing so for one simple reason, Orlofsky says: “Consumers are open to coffee as a platform for enhancing wellness.”

From Unsafe to Superfood

It wasn’t always this way. Some of us remember a time when coffee bore the whiff of an illicit brew that was safe—if it was safe at all—for grownups only.

“People said coffee could cause all sorts of problems,” recalls James S. Tonkin, founder and president of beverage-development firm Healthy Brand Builders (Scottsdale, AZ). “It would stunt your growth, cause heart problems, turn the inside of your body into a brown mess,” he says. “People considered these truisms, but they were just anecdotes.”

Now, he says, “There’s a lot we know about coffee’s benefits, from helping to [reduce the risk of developing] Parkinson’s disease to contributing to emotional well-being.”

Even coffee’s caffeine—long demonized for causing any number of ills—is proving demonstrably to be both a legitimate mood-lifter and a performance-enhancing drug.

“After you drink coffee,” explains Stipe Rezic, CEO and founder, Mushroom Cups (Solin, Croatia), “the caffeine is absorbed into the bloodstream and travels to the brain where it blocks an inhibitory neurotransmitter called adenosine.” With adenosine thus blocked, Rezic continues, neurotransmitters like norepinephrine and dopamine can flow more freely, “leading to enhanced firing of neurons. So coffee definitely positively affects your brain function.”

Moreover, he adds, “Several studies show that caffeine can boost metabolic rate, which leads to a fat-burning effect.” From his perspective, that makes coffee a tonic for sedentary desk jockeys: “While your body is still, coffee pushes your metabolism to move.”

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Tonkin praises current research into coffee’s constituent phytonutrients, “and I think we’ll see a lot more coming out,” he says, “because the findings are real.”

Waking Up to Functional Coffee

In anticipation, brands keep innovating. Just ask Orlofsky. “If you step into the labs at Imbibe on any given day,” she says, “you’ll find product developers, flavor chemists, and taste-modulation experts working on a handful of coffee products.”

Concepts range from plant-based alternative-dairy lattes—“and plenty of dairy ones, too,” she insists—to collagen-infused coffee drinks, adaptogenic brews, sparkling coffees, and more, many with a cold-brew base and a few that are even nitrogenated.

Also exciting, she finds, are innovations in adjacent categories, like creamers and barista milks. “Califia Farms launched a mushroom and oat barista milk including extracts from cordyceps and lion’s mane,” she says, “and we expect several more functional creamers and alt-milks for coffee to launch in the next 12 to 18 months.”

Adds John T. Musselman, vice president, sales and marketing, Phenolaeis (Cambridge, MA), “Certainly, immunity-promoting ingredients—vitamins C and D, zinc, and elderberry—are top of mind these days, and formulators will continue to include them in functional coffees.” And given coffee’s history as a mental and physical stimulant, he expects to see more formulations addressing mood, cognitive health, and exercise recovery alike. “Markets like sports nutrition and esports will be keen to embrace these functional coffees,” he predicts.

Function from the Earth

In addition to proteins, vitamins, and “good fats” like medium-chain triglycerides (MCT) oil, Orlofsky has her eye on a rising role for adaptogens—“especially functional mushrooms like chaga, reishi, cordyceps, lion’s mane, and turkey tail,” she says—in “coffees-with-benefits.”

Not surprisingly, so does Mushroom Cups’ Rezic. Why adaptogens? Because while coffee’s stimulatory effects on the central nervous system improve alertness, attention, and concentration, he says, “Caffeine also boosts cortisol and adrenaline production, both of which are stress hormones.” That’s why too much can raise heart rate and blood pressure, and even trigger cell damage.

Adaptogens like functional mushrooms normalize production of those hormones, “helping to modulate the body’s stress response so that it doesn’t overreact and deplete cells of energy,” Rezic says. “This helps explain why mushroom coffee has been growing at such a fast pace—all of coffee’s benefits, but no jitters or crashes.”

His brand leans on adaptogenic fungi like chanterelles, which he says are rich in vitamins and minerals and help convert food into energy and serotonin; chaga, with powerful antioxidants that act as strong anti-inflammatories; cordyceps, which he claims improves oxygen uptake and aerobic capacity; and lion’s mane, which can improve mood while supporting brain function with its “fascinating ability to regrow nerve cells,” he says.

Even better, not only are the mushrooms good for us; they’re good in coffee, too. The company uses mushroom extracts that Rezic says are “very hard to taste.” In fact, he believes they lend the beverages “a hint of the forest.”

As for preserving their bioactivity in the finished products—which are powdered instant coffees delivered in sachets—extracting the high-potency actives is actually harder on them than formulating and producing the powders themselves. “Once you have that,” Rezic says, “the only important thing is that the consumer uses hot, not boiling, water, and they’ll have an awesome mushroomchino.”

Rezic finds the mushroom world “absolutely fascinating” and thinks we’ve barely scratched its surface. “Discovering other species beneficial to human health and adding them to beverages is something I’m very excited about,” he says. “I’m looking forward to doing more of it in the coming years.”

Palm Fruit

For their part, Musselman and Phenolaeis are using functional formulation to reinforce coffee’s own suite of phytonutrients.

“Consumers and marketers are more aware of the health benefits derived from coffee’s phenolic compounds and antioxidants,” he notes, adding that palm fruit extract—the company’s “flagship ingredient and driving force”—delivers a unique array of polyphenols that “complement coffee’s native phenolics from a health perspective,” he says, “and have noticeable flavor synergies with it, too.”

They’ve deployed the sustainably grown botanical in freeze-dried, roasted, and ground single-serve and RTD coffees, he says, “and additional functional-coffee formulations will soon be available, with palm fruit extract joining other ingredients that promote immunity and mood-state benefits.”

In working with Phenolaeis’s partners on these innovations, Musselman concludes, “We’re excited to follow the developments. Functional-coffee applications like cold brews, protein-based beverages, and probiotic espresso shots are all examples of what makes this sector vibrant and well positioned for growth as consumers look at coffee in new ways.”