Typical Beverages, Interupted

September 15, 2009
Shazia Haq
Shazia Haq

Rising consumer interest in eco-friendly products-not to mention recent food scares-is encouraging food manufacturers to take on more natural approaches when it comes to selling beverages.

From ingredients to locations and methods of manufacturing and distributing, a "cleaner" image is becoming increasingly significant. Whether it's iced tea fused with antioxidants or water with added flavor, what nearly every beverage trend brings to the table today is a focus on natural flavors and health.

Historically, the struggle between making a beverage both healthy and delicious has been tough. Consumers want to find a convenient way to get more nutrients in what they consume, without compromising flavor and taste. This struggle, if anything, is good news for the beverage industry, says Neil Kimberley, a former brand manager for Dr Pepper Snapple Group (Plano, TX). It forces innovation and "affords new concepts by improving beverage selection," he says.

One way that companies are advancing beverage selection is by infusing vitamins and minerals into drinks.

In May, Odwalla Inc. (Denver, CO) released Wholly Grain!, a fruit smoothie with 32 g of natural whole grains made with gluten-free brown rice and mixed with orange, pineapple, and mango juices. The drink contains two-thirds of the recommended daily intake of essential vitamins.

"The drink is an easy way to work more healthful whole grains into your day," says Jason Dolenga, brand manager for Odwalla.

Tea manufacturers are also finding new ways to make their products healthier. Coca-Cola's new (Atlanta) FUZE iced tea products-available in green, unsweetened, and black and Southern-style sweet tea flavors-contain natural antioxidants called catechins. They also provide 10% of recommended daily vitamins B3, B5, B6, B12, and C per 8-oz bottle.

SWEET SUBSTITUTES

Earlier this year, Coca-Cola conducted consumer testing in New York for a new drink called Vio. Vio, described as "the world's first vibrancy drink," is a carbonated dairy-based beverage brand and comes in four flavors: Citrus Burst, Peach Mango, Tropical Colada, and Very Berry. Consumers might assume that because it contains milk and fruit, Vio would be nutritious and healthy. But there are actually 26 g of sugar per bottle, making the innovative beverage as sugary as a regular can of Coke.

The importance of sugar content is as high as ever for manufacturers as consumers are increasingly looking first to the nutrition label of a product and second to its price. Here is a look at some soda-sweetening possibilities of the future.

Agave nectar: This sweet, syrupy nectar is extracted from the agave, the same succulent desert plant used to make tequila. Agave is a bit like honey, though sweeter and less viscous, and has fewer calories per tablespoon. Since its flavor is so potently sweet, less of it is needed, which trims the calorie count considerably. Another perk of agave nectar is that it is low on the glycemic index, meaning it releases slowly into blood, gradually raising blood sugar levels and avoiding that rush that white refined sugar brings.

Brown rice syrup: Brown rice syrup is born when cooked rice is fermented and strained and the liquid is simmered to a syrupy consistency. The process yields a mildly sweet flavor. Brown rice syrup is mostly maltose (white sugar is mostly sucrose).

Chicory root: The roots of the chicory plant have long been cultivated and added as a flavor to coffee-like beverages. Chicory root also contains inulin and oligofructose, complex carbohydrates, which lend chicory a mildly sweet flavor. Chicory can be used on its own or sometimes as an additive to high-intensity artificial sweeteners, including aspartame.

Date sugar: You probably wouldn't want to stir date sugar into your coffee as of right now-unless you take your coffee crunchy. That's because date sugar is not a smooth syrup or sugar-like crystals; it's actually dried dates that have been very finely chopped. But development has continued with hopes to make date sugar act as a white sugar substitute. While it may not mix well with liquid as of now, more research is being conducted on its functionality. In its present form, the powder can still be used to add a sweet flavor to baked goods.

Stevia: Stevia is an herb in the Chrysanthemum family, which grows wild as a small shrub in parts of Paraguay and Brazil. The glycosides in its leaves account for its sweetness. There are indications that stevia has been used to sweeten 'maté, a beverage native to South America, since Pre-Columbian times.

RP44: Earlier this year, Redpoint Bio (Ewing, NJ) identified a component of a natural material that can be used to boost the sweetness provided by caloric sweeteners such as sucrose, fructose, or high-fructose corn syrup. Redpoint Bio says that RP44 enabled the reduction of up to 25% of the caloric sweetener content in product prototypes, while still maintaining the taste quality of the fully sweetened product.

Nutritional sodas aren't far behind the health train. Catering to growing interest in natural beverages, both Coca-Cola and Pespsico (Purchase, NY) unveiled more health-conscious soft drinks this year.

In June, Coca-Cola Japan announced the launch of its green tea–flavored, catechin-infused Coke exclusively for the Japan market. Not to be outdone, Pepsico released basil-flavored Pepsi Shiso in Japan later that same month.

Pepsi and Coke weren't the first to delve into the nutritional soda realm. In 2003, Nutrisoda was launched as a premium-price wellness drink for frequent flyers. The drink, originally named Airforce Nutrisoda-a reference to the jet-set target demographic-was introduced in 8.4-oz cans that sold for $2 each near airport gates.

Following PepsiAmericas Inc.'s (Minneapolis, MN) acquisition of Ardea in January 2006, Nutrisoda has expanded from its original "Immune" flavor to eight flavors whose names imply various mood benefits: Calm, Focus, Energize, Radiant, Slender, Flex, and Renew.

A new marketing campaign is meant to boost Nutrisoda's health image in the beverage market. One billboard advertising headline playfully reads, "Nutritious soda? What's next, dogs hugging cats?"

Fortified water is another attractive trend for consumers who seek both the calorie content of water and the taste of delicious juice. This year, Hint Essence Water Inc. (San Francisco, CA) released four new flavors of its all-natural, sugar-free flavored water, Hint Essence Water. The flavors come in hibiscus vanilla, watermelon, honeydew hibiscus, and blackberry.

Hint, whose mantra is "Drink Water, Not Sugar," is the brainchild of Kara Goldin, a San Francisco mother of four who was seeking a refreshing, unsweetened, and zero-calorie beverage for her family.

Live Young Forever Health and Wellness (LYF; Edmonton, AB, Canada) has introduced Live Young Forever Citrus, a vitamin-enhanced water. According to LYF, the beverage is a blend of vitamins and antioxidant Epigallocatechin gallat (EGCG). EGCG stimulates thermogenesis, a process critical to weight loss and fat burning. The beverage is 100% natural, using only fruits and vegetable juice for its coloring.