Fixing a Drink

May 13, 2010
Lorraine Niba

Originally Published

Originally Published NO May 2010

The beverage category in the American market has changed remarkably in the last few years. As consumer demands trend towards more-functional foods and drinks, beverage manufacturers are adapting to meet these tastes. As a result, beverages have become a prime vehicle for the delivery of nutritional and health benefits.

Beverages targeted at key areas of concern, such as cardiovascular health, digestive health, immune support, bone health, obesity, and weight management, are now available in the American market. These beverages contain various functional ingredients such as antioxidants, proteins, fiber, prebiotics and probiotics, vitamins and minerals, soy, and even omega-3s.

Formulating beverages with these ingredients often presents challenges to product developers. The most critical features of a beverage ingredient are solubility and dispersibility. For clear beverages especially, these attributes determine whether or not a particular ingredient will be suited to a beverage. Another issue is that added ingredients can negatively impact the flavor profile and mouthfeel of a beverage. Processing and storage stability are yet other areas of concern. Beverages are typically heat-treated or even pasteurized, and most shelf-stable beverages are high-acid, low-pH products, which may cause degradation of some ingredients.

Antioxidants such as the anthocyanins, flavonoids, and polyphenols found in fruits like acai berry and pomegranate have many physiological benefits, particularly with respect to cardiovascular disease prevention. These antioxidants are, however, susceptible to breakdown and discoloration during processing, clarification, and storage.

GULP: A DOWNTURN IN FUNCTIONAL BEVERAGE SALES?

AFTER SEVERAL YEARS OF STEADY GROWTH, U.S. functional-beverage sales have slowed, according to recent estimates by Mintel International.

"A positive sales trend has turned negative," the market researcher noted.

The decline in sales is largely attributed to slowed growth in energy drinks and enhanced waters, as well as functional teas-three extremely successful areas that have more than tripled in size over the last five years, Mintel estimated.

"Enhanced-water sales turned sharply down in 2009 after years of spectacular growth," Mintel reported. It estimated that enhanced-water sales reached $762 million in 2009, which reflects an 8% decline from 2008.

Energy drinks didn't fare as badly, but "have cooled off from their explosive growth earlier in the decade," said Mintel. The category continued to gain sales in 2009, said Mintel, partially thanks to successful sales of energy shots. Men and younger adults are key customers of energy drinks.

Other functional beverages areas also experienced slowed growth: • Functional teas, after strong growth through 2007, flattened during 2007 to 2009, partly due to increased competition from the broader tea market. • Sales of yogurt drinks and smoothies dropped 10% in 2009 and have gained only 8% over the past five years. Probiotic yogurt drinks are a lone bright spot in the category.

Mintel chalked up the overall sales slowdown to a number of factors.

Pressure from a down economy weighed especially heavily on functional beverages. "Both supplements and functional foods are less expensive than functional beverages," said Mintel, pointing out that many fancier functional beverages promise to provide nutrients that something like a multivitamin can also provide, at a lower cost. A functional beverage, said Mintel, can often be five to ten times more expensive than a supplement pill.

Also, thanks to its growing success in recent years, the functional-beverage category is flooded with brands that now have to fight for consumer attention. "The functional-beverage category, through new product activity, line extensions, and the blurring of segment definitions, has created competition for itself," said Mintel. New-product activity peaked in 2008, especially in enhanced waters and energy drinks, "as new competitors looked to capture some of the momentum that brands such as Glacéau, Vitaminwater, Red Bull, and Monster had created in earlier years." In 2009, thanks to slowing sales, new-product activity likewise slowed.

Finally, just as negative publicity has fallen on soft drinks over concerns about obesity, consumers are also concerned about the sugar content of functional beverages. Mintel said that 70% of functional-beverage customers agree that such beverages contain too much sugar, and that they would drink more functional beverages if these beverages contained less sugar. While fruit juices are one area that has performed steadily, Mintel noted that concerns over sugar, as well as a lack of innovation, could impact the category overall.

As far as which functional ingredients are most in demand in beverages, Mintel pointed to green tea, calcium, antioxidants, pomegranate, and added vitamins.

There are still opportunities in the functional-beverages segment, which Mintel said reached $8.6 billion in 2009. Currently, only one-third of functional-beverage customers consume those beverages on a daily basis. "Stressing the wellness benefits of a daily regimen may be the best way to increase category volume," said Mintel.

Also, just as an improving economy will help everyone, it may also aid functional beverages, especially if those beverages aren't viewed as being so costly. "Nearly six in ten respondents say that would purchase more [functional beverages] if they were less expensive," Mintel wrote.

-Jennifer Kwok, Editor

Researchers at the University of Florida found that the use of co-factors facilitates post-process retention of acai anthocyanins and polyphenols. These co-factors are typically other polyphenols, such as isoflanovoids, which complex with anthocyanins, making them more stable. Tea drinks and tea-based beverages, meanwhile, are extremely popular among American consumers, mainly due to the halo of health and wellness associated with green tea. However, the bioactive catechins in green tea are adversely impacted by high temperatures and pH. To minimize their destruction, processing conditions have to be appropriately controlled.

Consumer interest in ingredients for digestive health-mainly fiber, prebiotics, and probiotics-has skyrocketed in the last few years. Digestive health was in fact ranked as the top trend for 2010 by New Nutrition Business. Ingredients such as prebiotics and probiotics not only have benefits for digestive health, but have also been associated with ancillary benefits such as immune support and bone health. These ingredients have gained great traction in the beverage and dairy categories, including dairy beverages.

A key challenge in formulating beverages with prebiotics is to ensure that they do not impart viscosity or "off tastes," altering the sensory quality of the product. Also, some prebiotics and probiotics are unstable in high-acid, low-pH conditions. Viability of probiotic cultures is in fact a major concern when formulating probiotics into beverages. Formulators typically overcome these challenges by seeking out versatile ingredients that have been optimized to minimize impact on sensory quality, while retaining efficacious amounts of the ingredient in the end product.

Protein-containing beverages have made huge inroads in the American market. Consumers are looking to high-protein beverages for vital needs such as sports nutrition, bone health, satiety, and weight management. When formulating proteins into beverages, the interaction of proteins with other components in beverage systems is of utmost concern. Some amino acids and proteins interact with other compounds to cause turbidity, haziness, and even gelling in solution. Most protein ingredients are therefore limited to use in non-clear, milk-type beverages or instant beverage mixes. Soy beverages, for instance, are typically suspension-type, emulsion-based beverages.

Process stability is also of particular importance in beverages fortified with vitamins and minerals. Because there are established recommended daily allowances for these vitamins, higher doses are added during processing to compensate for potential degradation and losses during processing and storage.

The beverage category is innovative, forward-looking, and is a leading category in the use of health and wellness ingredients. While this category offers great opportunity as a delivery system for functional ingredients, the processing and storage resilience of these ingredients is extremely critical. The ideal ingredients for functional beverages offer not only desirable nutritional and wellness benefits, but are also process-friendly, enabling the seamless formulation of market-ready beverage products that consumers want.