Sparkling beverages, plant-based frozen foods among the most successful new-product-launch categories in 2021, IRI’s 27th annual New Product Pacesetters report says


As the market researcher points out, 2021 is the first year in which the report captures data gathered during a full year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Market researcher IRI (Chicago) has released its 2021 New Product Pacesetters report detailing last year’s top-selling new product launches in the food and nonfood CPG market. Beverages and plant-based frozen foods were among the most successful types of new product launches in 2021, the report says.

2021 marks the 27th year in which IRI has released this report. As the market researcher points out, 2021 is the first year in which the report captures data gathered during a full year of the COVID-19 pandemic. The report notes, “New products that succeeded navigated the COVID-19 pandemic by delivering against enduring trends and delivering on consumer needs, even as those needs evolved.” For instance, it says, while in 2020 consumers were primarily seeking staple CPG products and cleaning products, in 2021, “For the most part, consumers returned to proactive self-care, convenience, and indulgence…”


As a category, beverage launches stood out in 2021. Says the report, “Overall, 2021 marked the first time in Pacesetter history when such a significant percentage of the top 100 Pacesetters are beverages.”

Both alcohol and nonalcohol launches were popular, with consumers seeking to make “drinking and entertaining at home fun,” exploring different beverage types and flavors.

Hard seltzers and premixed cocktails—including the Truly Iced Tea product, which combines iced tea and hard seltzer—performed well. Plant-based beverages like Oatly oat milk also ranked high on the list.

Sparkling beverages were also extremely popular. Coca-Cola’s AHA Sparkling Water ranked as the number-two top-selling Pacesetter in food and beverages. The report adds, “New products in coffee and tea helped keep the energy up, with four Pacesetters in the top 50, including No. 29 Starbucks Nitro Cold Brew, which brings coffeehouse quality home; No. 30 ready-to-drink Kitu Super Coffee; No. 47 Dunkin’ Iced Coffee in a 48-oz bottle; and No. 50 Tazo ready-to-drink iced tea.”

Performance-enhancing beverages also ranked high, including Pedialyte Sport for rehydration, Gatorade Bolt24, Powerade Power Water, and A Shoc Energy, which features plant-based caffeine and electrolytes from marine minerals.

A lot of new products also touted zero- and low-sugar claims. The lemonade category was also active, including Minute Maid Zero Sugar, Bai Lemonade, and Dole Lemonade. Other rising stars included PepsiCo’s Bubly Bounce sparkling water, Alani Nu energy drinks, and Mtn Dew Energy.

In terms of packaging, beverage cans are increasingly popular, including for cocktails and wine products.

More Trends

Other trends the report highlights include healthy sales in frozen convenience foods and at-home cooking products. Several Pacesetters were plant-based products, including Impossible Burger Patties, Life Cuisine frozen meals, Birds Eye Cauliflower Wings, and JUST Egg Folded.

“In the last two years, convenience as an attribute has increased,” the report notes. “In 2020 and 2021 Pacesetters, a quarter of food and beverage items were convenience items, qualified by easy preparation with added convenience and/or microwaveable.”

In the nonfood category, supplement brand Goli Nutrition ranked as the number-five bestseller.

Finally, the report notes, sustainability and plant-based are still important attributes, as shown by last year’s top sellers.

And in terms of health and wellness, the report states, “In addition to plant-based, attributes and claims around low/no sugar, lower calories, digestive health, and lifestyle (low carb/keto, gluten free) continue to show momentum among New Product Pacesetters.” For instance, a top performer was SmartSweets, a low-sugar confectionery brand now sold in Whole Foods Market.

Protein from all sources also continues to hit the market, “with three of the top 10 and 41 of the top 100 food and beverage Pacesetters offering protein benefits.”

Follow the Trends

IRI says industry players should stay abreast of these top performers, which managed to see sales succeed despite the production, supply chain, and labor challenges of recent years. Says an IRI press release, “IRI New Product Pacesetters provide a glimpse into what is resonating most with consumers and the trends CPG manufacturers and retailers should watch for success moving forward.”

Pacesetters are also where the growth is. A press release states: “Analyzing trends among New Product Pacesetter products is especially important since they typically comprise just 1% of total CPG dollar sales but are responsible for a very significant one-third of growth year over year. In 2021, Pacesetters accounted for 44% of total store growth with similar contribution from food and beverage and nonfood innovation, despite challenges ranging from supply chain issues to store space allocation and unpredictable demand.”

Even during pandemic times, “Especially notable is that despite unprecedented challenges, many manufacturers of all sizes stayed the course to successfully deliver innovation. Successful offerings from smaller companies dispel expectations that the pandemic crippled innovation, particularly among companies with fewer resources. Smaller companies have capitalized by reacting quickly with innovation and filling gaps, while larger companies have had to trim down assortment to meet demand.”

Still, some companies did have to postpone brand extensions or innovation, focusing instead of keeping their core products in stock. Smaller companies might have had more flexibility to switch gears, with the report observing that “some smaller companies could more easily pivot to generate products they could make and had the materials to manufacture.” This included some alcohol companies that began to manufacture hand sanitizer instead.

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