The healthy beverage market continues to expand.

Beverages are an enormous part of our lives. We have coffee to wake us up or use as an excuse to meet a new date, tea to relax at bedtime, drinks with friends and family for special occasions, and juice with breakfast. Since beverages are so prevalent in our everyday activities, it’s great we have so many options that can be anyone’s cup of tea.

Claire Polson, vice president of trade marketing and business development for Miami, FL-based Explorer’s Bounty, makers of certified organic coffees and teas, knows: “Consumers are looking for a drink that tastes great—one they can pick up and enjoy, knowing they are helping their body stay healthy in another way.”

In addition, says Anne-Marie Phillips, head of sales and marketing for Choice Organic Teas, Seattle, WA, “Consumers are also more informed than ever, insisting on clear definitions, transparency and verification for product and ingredient claims. And, of course, it has to taste good!”

More Than Your Average Morning Brew
Although coffees and teas are the tried-and-true standbys of the beverage industry, other drinks are becoming just as sought after. “The demand for functional drinks that have added benefits such as digestive aids, vitamins or powerful antioxidants is also on the rise,” adds Phillips. Energy drinks, in particular, have become extremely popular. However, despite energy drinks’ popularity, there is some controversy about their most well-known ingredient—caffeine.

Making a SplashCaroline MacDougall, founder and C.E.O. of Teeccino Caffé, Inc., Santa Barbara, CA, clarifies some information about caffeine: “Caffeine is a molecule that is identical in any plant it occurs in such as coffee, tea, maté, guarana and kola nut. Its effects are the same in the body whether it is ingested by consuming a plant or has been extracted and added to soda. Caffeine spikes cortisol production, activates the body’s flight-or-fight stress syndrome, raises blood sugar by stimulating the liver to release glucose, and produces a temporary state of alertness.”

However, she explains how caffeine’s effects also are dependent upon other compounds present in a beverage. For example, she says, theanine in tea has a calming effect and is helpful for smoothing out jitters that are caused by caffeine.

Synthetic, lab-created caffeines also exist, which many feel takes tampering with Mother Nature a bit too far. Eric Schnell, co-founder of The Healthy Beverage Company, says, “At Steaz, we’ve nicknamed it ‘Franken-feine.’ In point, our consumers tell us the ‘buzz’ they get from a Steaz Energy, made with green tea and yerba maté is more of a sustained lift that lasts for hours.”

Indeed, energy and concentration drinks are now taking a no-caffeine route. Scott Ohlgren, creator and owner of caffeine-free Brain Toniq, Longmont, CO, says, “Our think drink helps achieve focus and concentration without any kind of caffeine. With five to 36 times the amount of active ingredients of any functional beverage on the market, Brain Toniq is the real deal. It provides simple access to the world’s most powerful brain-enhancing botanicals. Think coffee without the gut-ripping side effects.”

Those side effects might be responsible for SPINS data referenced by MacDougall that noted a “20% growth in the coffee alternative market in 2008.” One of the reasons for this growth, she says, is because consumers are becoming more aware of the negative aspects of caffeine concerning their health, noting caffeine’s impact on pregnant women, and people with diabetes, high cholesterol, cystitis, GERD and heart disease.

“Customers show that while people are making more educated choices and turning to herbal coffees, they have more refined palates and are looking for really great alternative drinks. For consumers of an herbal coffee, the drink has to be as similar to coffee as it can be. This means maintaining flavor, texture and, of course, the ritual of the brewing process,” says MacDougall.

According to Teeccino, the firm’s herbal beverages deliver potassium, soluble fiber, prebiotics from inulin and a natural energy boost in a less-acidic, tasty beverage.

Even considering this, some consumers remain die-hard fans of caffeine and won’t settle for anything else. “Our studies have shown that a large segment of cola drinkers wanted a caffeinated cola,” says Scott Rago of Oogave, Denver, CO. “Our soda uses a green tea extract to provide a natural caffeine source.”

Carbonated Controversy

A recent proposed tax in New York City had created a bit of an uproar in the industry. The “obesity tax” sought to decrease the waistlines of New Yorkers by increasing the taxes on certain carbonated beverages.

Liz Morrill, founder of New York, NY-based Fizzy Lizzy all-natural juice spritzers believes, “The way the particular law was written was extremely irrational. Certain categories were going to be exempt form the tax including 100% juice, tea and coffee beverages. If you’re trying to get people to consume less-fattening drinks using public policy, using taxes, why spare these drinks that are actually more than twice as caloric?”

For example, Fizzy Lizzy has even reformulated some of their juice spritzers to improve flavor and reduce calories. For example, their Northern Lights Cranberry has been reduced from 29 g of sugar to 19 g, and 150 calories down to 80 calories.

Aside from the seemingly irrational way of attacking the obesity epidemic, some believe that education and consumer responsibility are the key issues. “This type of legislation will not solve the problem. The issue is the public’s ignorance about the bad effects; taxing someone will not change the lack of information,” says Bradford S. Beckerman, C.E.O. of Bradford Tonic, Inc., Miami Beach, FL.

Rather than impose legislation upon the thirsty masses, the natural products industry provides an opportunity to quench the desire for healthy, delicious beverages. “For the most part, it’s better to convince people to do something good for themselves, rather than punishing them,” says Anne-Marie Phillips, head of sales and marketing for Choice Organic Teas, Seattle, WA.

Explorer’s Bounty offers organic, single-origin coffees for those who remain loyal to their morning brew and fair trade organic maté tea infusions, which have been formulated for the “western palate to enjoy.” The maté is from Argentina, says Polson, “where it is not just a tradition, but a lifestyle to drink the healthy beverage. It provides, without the peaks and valleys, an energetic feeling and mental alertness without the shakes, and is used for digestion.”

In addition to caffeine sensitivities, Steven Meyers, partner of Boulevards, LLC, Bradenton, FL, maker of organic and kosher hot chocolate beverages, has seen “an increased interest in beverages that do not contain allergens, such as gluten or casein, along with an increased interest in alternative sweeteners.”

How Sweet It Is…
Sweeter-tasting beverages such as juice often provide a wide array of health benefits, but have been targeted for those very ingredients that make them so sweet and tasty. Liz Morrill, founder of Fizzy Lizzy all-natural juice spritzers believes questions about sugars and sweeteners top the list of consumer concerns, suggesting that functionality might be waning in favor of a return to products with “a lack of additives” that are “unprocessed and unadulterated.”

A high-fructose controversy. Consumers are certainly becoming aware of what they want and even more aware of what they don’t want in their beverages, especially with recent focused attention on the sweetener, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS).

According to Bradford S. Beckerman, C.E.O. of Bradford Tonic, Inc., Miami Beach, FL, retailers’ response to HFCS should be: “Do not buy products with this ingredient.” And, just like in the commercials on television today, many consumers are asking, “Why?” The controversy remains heated: skeptics believe HFCS is being treated as a food industry scapegoat, whereas concerns about HCFS range from how it is manufactured to the way it “sneaks” into unsuspecting foods and beverages. As a result of this back-and-forth battle, many consumers are simply choosing to forgo HFCS and are seeking alternatives in their local health food stores.

Phillips notes, “There has been a recent resurgence in the use of cane sugar, although even natural sugar has its purported drawbacks.” Other alternatives include honey, stevia, a sweetener made from the leaves of a South American plant, and agave. Issues with HFCS have also strongly influenced the development of the natural soda category.

Soft drinks. According to data referenced by Michael Spain, director of business affairs at Zevia, LLC, Seattle, WA, “More than 60% of diet soda drinkers are concerned about the safety of artificial sweeteners, but they drink diet soda nonetheless.”

“Zevia is made without artificial sweeteners, artificial flavors or artificial colors. Zevia, sweetened with stevia, is unique and fills the need for consumers who are looking for the highest quality, all-natural, sugar-free beverages to complement a healthy lifestyle,” adds Spain.

Bradford Tonic, Inc. manufactures all natural, healthy, vegan, low- and no-fat Caribbean drinks. “Our drinks have no chemicals, additives or preservatives, and they taste great. All of our drinks are made with agave, a low-glycemic sweetener,” says Beckerman.

Agave nectar, also called agave syrup, has been reported by UNFI as the hottest and fastest growing sweetener, says Rago of Oogave. “Agave nectar offers an equivalent sweetness to refined sugar with about half the amount of carbohydrate calories. Also, agave nectar does not stimulate digestive insulin secretion and so is suitable as a sugar substitute for those with diabetes, as it is less disturbing to blood sugar levels. In other words, it does not create a ‘sugar rush,’” he continues. Oogave offers six flavors of sodas sweetened 100% with organic agave nectar.

As questions about sugar and sweeteners continue to rise, retailers should stock store shelves with some products without sweeteners and be able to explain the facts about products that do contain them.

Rago advises: “Keep it simple and pure.”

Cheers to Organic Beverages
Although typically, one might immediately assume that alcohol equals unhealthy, there are several factors to consider. Numerous studies show that moderate consumption of certain alcoholic beverages may have some health benefits. Also, drinking for social and/or religious purposes has been a part of most cultures for centuries, and may contribute to a healthy, balanced lifestyle.

Since alcoholic beverages will inevitably be a part of our society, methods of production become important, making certified organic alcohol products quite relevant.

“Knowing that the ingredients were grown and processed organically by people who care and conduct their business sustainably with the environment in mind provides the greatest benefit,” says Max Oswald, vice president of sales and marketing for Otter Creek Brewing, Middlebury, VT.

Paul Davis, president of Maison Jomere, Ltd. d/b/a The Organic Spirits Co., Plaistow, NH, agrees: “I don’t believe the question of health matters as much as the fact that our farmers produce organic grains and sugar cane, thereby being environmentally friendly. We package in eco-friendly materials and we ‘Fair Trade.’”

Wine. In a study referenced by Caroline Frey, director of promotions for Frey Vineyards, Redwood Valley, CA, the Pesticide Action Network Europe found 100% of conventional wines to contain pesticides; one particular bottle contained 10 different pesticides. On average, a conventional bottle contained four pesticides—even from the most reputable vineyards. The analysis revealed 24 different pesticide contaminants, including five classified as being carcinogenic, mutagenic, reprotoxic or endocrine disrupting by the European Union (1).

Frey also claims that customers turn to their no-sulfites-added wines to avoid bad reactions from conventional wine. According to the Frey Vineyards Web site, under the USDA National Organic Program, sulfites are a synthetic food additive and cannot be added to any certified organic food products. Sulfites are commonly added to conventional wines as a preservative and stabilizer, but many people can have negative reactions to higher levels of sulfites.

Also, many recent studies have investigated the link between resveratrol, a compound found in the skin of red grapes, and many health benefits such as anti-aging.

Beer. “Some say they can taste a difference in organic beer—that it is cleaner, earthier,” says Oswald. Even so, organic beer has certainly raised some eyebrows: the USDA does not require organic hops to be used in organic beer, raising concerns about exclusions throughout the industry.

Davis says: “There should be no exception; you are either organic or you are not. Just because it’s a difficult task to grow hops organically, doesn’t mean there should be exceptions to the rules. If that exclusion agreement can apply to beer, why not other products?”

Although coming from a background in wine, Frey agrees: “We should demand that something labeled ‘organic’ is actually organic.”

But, in defense of the organic beer industry, Oswald says, “We use organic hops in all of our beers, however, to produce a wide range of flavors, we need a variety of hops and many of these simply are not available. To those who would recommend only brewing hops that are available organically, while this is a valid point, imagine only cooking with one spice? We recently released Pat Leavy’s All-American Ale, made with 100% American-grown organic malts and three different Oregon-grown organic hop varieties. We are committed to great beers with a range of flavors and to be 100% organic as soon as it is viable.”

Also on beer’s side, Mark Dallmeyer of Healthy Remnants, LLC, Lenox, MA, references a study published in the British Medical Journal showing that the lowest risk of myocardial infarction was found among men who drank almost daily or daily, but also suggested that the protective effect was lost in men who drank twice a day or more. It is always recommended to drink in moderation and drinking beer shouldn’t be one’s only avenue for heart health. Dallmeyer says, “Healthy Remnants was founded on the basis of the health aspects of brewery tea based upon the ancient Chinese benefits of brewing barley teas.”

Spirits. As organic wines and beers have become popular choices, the organic spirits market is also growing. “Ten years ago there were no certified organic spirits. Today, there are quite a few. In fact, a category has now been established,” says Davis.

New to the United States’ market will be Totally Organic Beverages, Inc., which offers organic vodka as well as four different organic juice blends (cranberry, mango, black currant and pomegranate) containing five percent organic distilled spirits. Don Snow, president of the Winnepeg, Manitoba, Canada-based company says, “Some of our juices, especially pomegranate and black currant contain polyphenolic antioxidants, which are considered premier disease fighters that protect the body against free radicals or unstable molecules that cause cell damage leading to chronic and degenerative diseases.” Now there’s something to toast to! WF

1. Pesticide Action Network Europe Press Release, March 28, 2008, accessed May 27, 2009.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, July 2009