The functional food and beverage category is thriving: Data suggests that the COVID-19 pandemic has consumers reaching for more snacks and soothing comfort foods to help manage stress, and they increasingly want their eats to contain ingredients that improve health and well-being. In fact, a 2021 Innova Insights report found that globally, 50% of consumers have increased their consumption of fortified food and beverages in the last 12 months (1). And according to the Hartman Group’s Functional Food & Beverage and Supplements report, 55% of consumers claim to use functional food/beverage solutions to treat or prevent a specific condition (2).

As pandemic restrictions are relaxed and people ease back into a more go-go-go lifestyle, the demand for functional foods is only expected to grow. “People want to optimize their well-being and, wherever possible, address their health concerns naturally,” asserts Donny Makower, CEO & Co-Founder, RDCL Superfoods. “People have also been more stressed and tired than they have been previously, and they want to do something about it.” He expects that while immunity will continue to be a top concern, other functional benefits including energy, focus, stress support, sleep support, digestion/gut health, beauty, memory, mood, and anti-inflammation will take center stage.

To deliver these health perks, today’s hot products are incorporating innovative forms of plant protein, probiotics, prebiotics, and superfood and adaptogenic ingredients, including turmeric, mushrooms, rhodiola, and ashwagandha.

Even with a focus on function, shoppers are still looking for clean-label products made with easily identifiable, natural ingredients, notes Debbie Shandel, Chief Growth Officer/Partner, Carrington Food. “Consumers are more attuned to organic, non-GMO, hormone-free, and grain-free. Sustainable packaging is also taking the forefront and will be of increasing importance as consumers shop with the environment in mind.”

No matter the functional benefit, consumers also still demand great taste and convenience from products. “With the world opening up, consumers will be on the hunt for more nutritious, convenient foods they can take on the road,” explains Chris Pruneda, Chief Marketing Officer of Koia. “They want to look and feel their best on their long-awaited trip, and with that, they’ll be stocking up on products that taste great but also have low sugar, carbs and clean, plant-based protein to keep them full on-the-go.”

Driving demand: Plant protein

No functional ingredient has seen more sales growth and innovation over the past year than plant-based products. “Protein is the name of the game right now—more specifically plant protein,” says Ryan Bracken, Co-CEO, Merit Functional Foods. “Consumers are looking for plant-based protein innovation in categories across the entire food and beverage spectrum, from ice cream and meat alternatives to bakery and well beyond.”

Interest in plant protein was already strong, but the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated growth, as quarantine drove more consumers to try plant-based products than ever before. “Trying new foods and beverages was one way that adventurous consumers were able to get some new experiences during the monotony of quarantined life,” explains Bracken. “That led a lot more consumers to test out plant-based products, many of which may not have considered trying them. But while early adopters of the plant-based movement may have been more forgiving of a plant-based product’s sensory experience, today the consumer base has significantly grown and evolved, and with that growth has come the expectation of good taste and texture and the ability to enjoy plant-based products without trade-offs.”

Fortunately, innovation in plant protein is delivering on nutrition, flavor and texture. Bracken points to Merit’s canola protein as one such new ingredient offering many innovative functionalities. “Whether it be whipping and foaming for ice cream alternatives or gelling characteristics in burger alternatives, canola protein helps deliver that meat- or dairy-like experience consumers are seeking. It’s worth mentioning that categories like ice cream alternatives and vegan bakery aren’t well known for being a source of high-protein content, but new ingredients are making these products taste and function better with just as impressive nutritionals as their traditional counterparts.”

Hemp is another source of plant protein with big potential for growth. Brian Zapp, Creative Director for Applied Foods Sciences, explains, “Sensory characteristics have been the main impediment to hemp protein’s adoption in the market, as it is historically known for its dark green color and pungent ‘hempy’ flavor. But through recent advancements in ingredient technologies, we are excited about the launch of our ‘hemp heart’ seed protein that solves these historic sensory challenges. By removing the shell, which contains a majority of the tannins and chlorophyll, we can provide a whole food hemp seed protein in a clean and delicious presentation.” Zapp notes that this whole food protein source retains fiber, antioxidants, and amino acids for a broad nutritional appeal.

Also leading the way in plant protein innovation, Kerry now offers ProDiem Refresh, a clear, dissolvable plant protein powder that is perfect for developing vegan waters, sports drinks, and coffee products with a protein boost.

When stocking shelves, though, keep in mind that the nutrition profiles of plant-based protein products are not all created equal, cautions Pruneda. “Unfortunately, there aren’t many options available that have all nine of the essential amino acids you need to thrive. Since 2016, all of our Koia Smoothie products have been formulated to include the nine essential amino acids for a complete protein—derived from ingredients including almonds, pea, brown rice and chickpea—and they taste delicious, too.”

Also Trending: Superfoods & Adpaptogens

There’s no shortage of CBD-infused products on the market. But consumers are also increasingly looking for stress-support from Eastern medicine ingredients with study-backed benefits, including turmeric, matcha and adaptogens such as ashwagandha and rhodiola, notes Chris McCoy, CEO of KombuchaTown.

Other functional foods and drinks offer stress support via calming minerals like magnesium and the green tea antioxidant l-theanine, adds Makower, noting his company’s Radical Elements powders make it easy to upgrade water with delicious flavor and energy- and stress-supporting nutrients.

Mushrooms (including reishi, chaga, lion’s mane and turkey tail), known for their immune-boosting effects, adaptogenic effects, and anti-aging properties, are also finding their way into everything from coffee, tea, and hot chocolate to popcorn. One example: Pivot coldbrew, which contains reishi, along with galanga, l-theanine, Cognizin Citicoline, and l-ergothioneine for calm energy with cognitive and immunity support.

Products with probiotics and prebiotics are also in high demand, notes McCoy. For instance, the live active cultures in KombuchaTown drinks help fortify digestion, to help defend against potential viruses. And consumers who don’t like the vinegary taste of kombucha can still get the probiotics benefits of kombucha with the company’s new line of LIVE seltzers.

Ingredients that support nutri-beauty also have strong growth potential, adds Pruneda. Collagen peptide is a staple, but he expects that prebiotic ingredients like baobab powder and chicory root (featured in Koia’s new Smoothie line), which help to aid in healthy skin and digestion, will also be trending.

And of course, the keto market continues to grow, making MCT oil and powders appealing as a smart high octane energy source. “MCT oil is still highly sought after in the keto community, and really anyone looking for clean mind and body fuel,” says Pruneda, noting that Koia’s Keto Smoothie line is a rich source of MCT oil.

Winning the Sales Game

When it comes to moving functional foods and drinks in the retail space, education is key, notes Shandel. Handing out samples is a great way to get consumers to try things, like plant protein based ice cream or bread where the texture can be a question, and convince them to buy in. “Retail dietitians can also help drive awareness and purchase interest with recipes, demos and consumer communications,” adds Shandel, who suggests beefing up your content within your online retail outlet. “Clearly online shopping or ‘buy online, pick up in store’ is very popular and will remain so as people get back to their busy lifestyles. And shopping online now gives consumers more opportunity to examine nutrition panels and ingredient labels as well as make comparisons between competitors.” The more info they have at their fingertips, the more they’re likely to buy.

Happy customers can also be a great resources in spreading the good news about a product. “Testimonials go a long way, particularly when it comes to functional benefits,” notes Makower. “Retailers should incentivize consumers to do some of the marketing for them and spread the word.”WF


  1. Innova Market Insights, 2021
  2. “Accelerated, Altered or Accentuated: Five Food and Beverage Trends Driven by the Pandemic. Hartman Group