It’s not enough to just taste good anymore. Industry trends are showing more consumers are looking for natural benefits as well.

Plant-based drinks, those with novel ingredients and those that promote better health and environmental sustainability are making advances in the market. Linda Gilbert, chief executive officer, EcoFocus Worldwide L.L.C., Manheim, PA, and author of a recent study examining trends affecting the food and beverage industries, stated that “A majority of grocery shoppers have identified a product’s fresh, clean and sustainable benefits among their top purchase priorities when it comes to healthier choices” (1).

Trend Toward Healthy LifestyleBeverages that can be beneficial to the body in addition to being enjoyable are definitely on an upward trajectory, however, it appears that many conventional retailers are not seizing this opportunity, giving natural products retailers some advantage in this area. “I think the issue is that many conventional supermarkets are still catering to the ‘follower’ crowd in beverages and not offering up these innovative and high margin items, tending too much to focus on high velocity and cheap products with too much sugar and artificial [ingredients],” states Andy Harrow, CMO of Wholesome Tea, Willowbrook, IL. “Many consumers are looking for beverages to do more than refresh, but since they don't shop at chains offering progressive items, they are not exposed to them.”

Paddy Spence, CEO of Zevia, Los Angeles, CA, believes that “Soda and beverage options are evolving —American tastes and dietary needs have become more focused on sugar reduction, simple, plant-based ingredients, and lighter sweetness levels.”

Progressive items such as plant-based beverages are contributing significantly to the growth of categories such as “water” and “milk” which have outgrown their conventional definitions, providing attractive alternatives to not only their conventional counterparts but more importantly, those beverages saturated with high fructose corn syrup and artificial ingredients.

“Plant-based waters as a category are still a relatively new option for consumers,” says Linda Barron, CEO of Steaz, Doylestown, PA. “It started with coconut water and has now expanded well beyond as consumers have embraced the nutritional integrity of these types of products. It is what excited us about cactus water — the nutritional integrity of the prickly pear fruit, offering hydration, antioxidants, electrolytes and a great taste.” While consumers are seeking healthier alternatives and do in fact want to make responsible food and beverage choices, Barron makes a good point about taste. “Taste is important,” she says. “Benefits are great but when coupled with great taste, it is simply a win-win for consumers.”

Fact of the matter is, a product that can deliver exceptional health benefits but isn’t palatable simply won’t sell. Great taste is the best way to compete with conventional beverages because if something does taste great and delivers a nutritional punch, people will be willing to turn their backs to conventional options and even pay a little extra. For that matter, consumers are not only seeking healthier alternatives, but novel ways to ingest nutrients beyond supplements and nutrient-dense meals. Beverages can be a way to bridge nutritional gaps.

Natural Energy SourcesIn today’s fast-paced society, consumers are always on the lookout for new and better ways to gain the energy they need to be as productive as possible throughout the day. As such, energy continues to be a major selling point for many consumers. How do some manufacturer’s beverages deliver energy and/or vitality to get consumers through the day in a healthy way?

Chris Reed, chief innovation officer and founder of Reed's, Inc., Los Angeles, CA, describes Reed’s Natural Energy Elixir. “[The Elixir] uses green tea to give a small boost in energy. In addition, we add ingredients like fresh ginger, goji, ginseng, camu camu, acai, B-vitamins, Jiaogulan (called the immortality herb in Chinese medicine),” he explains. “These ingredients give a natural boost of energy instead of just a caffeine boost from typical energy drinks.”

Even beverages not necessarily marketed as energy drinks make great sources of energy on account of their nutrient density. “Our product is a plant-based dairy alternative made from bananas, grains and seeds that also happens to be a functional beverage,” says chief beverage officer H.E. Neter Kush Ben Alkebulan of Banana Wave BananaMilk, Palm Beach Gardens, FL. “Our product is made from real bananas. One 8 oz cup of Banana Wave BananaMilk provides 30% calcium, 330 mg of potassium, 2 g of fiber, 1,200 mg of Omega 3’s and 22 g of carbohydrates. Our beverage functions as a de-facto energy drink without the caffeine crash. The carb count in bananas helps fuel you throughout the day.”

Brandin Cohen, Co-Founder and CEO of Liquid I.V., a powder drink mix out of Marina Del Rey Ave, CA, claims that his firm’s Hydration Multiplier “results in long lasting energy by quickly and efficiently delivering hydration to cells through Cellular Transport Technology (CTT).” He continues, “Based on the science pioneered by the World Health Organization (WHO), CTT uses a specific ratio of potassium, sodium and glucose to deliver water and other key nutrients directly to your bloodstream, including B vitamins which are great for natural energy.”

FunctionalityEnergy drinks are popular because they serve a purpose, and have a function beyond satisfying taste buds. Indeed, now that people are seeking nutrition from everyday beverages, they are demanding functionality beyond energy. A recent EcoFocus Study reported that “Consumers are increasingly looking to beverages to play new roles in their diets and health routines. Industry leaders should expect consumers in 2017 to demand beverages that work harder, whether for refreshment, satiety, energy, immunity boosting, sleep aid, blood sugar management, or a host of other functional benefits now associated with these multifunctional power beverages” (2).

Even water, our most basic and valuable form of hydration is getting boosted. “A definite trend that is being seen in the beverage industry is the exponentially increasing popularity of functional waters,” says Barron. “More so than ever consumers have taken strides to increase the health benefits in the beverages they consume on a daily basis, moving away from high sugar and carbonated beverages. Consumers are looking for beverages that combine great taste with both natural ingredients and natural sweeteners that provide nutritional integrity and benefits for the whole body.”

Eric Berniker, CMO at CORE Hydration, Los Angeles, CA, agrees, stating, “There has been a shift in consumers choosing beverages that are low calorie, low sugar, and filled with nutrients, mineral, electrolytes  and antioxidants, over traditional beverages.”

Beyond water, consumers are also keeping their eyes peeled for trending health ingredients such as ginger, turmeric and vinegar, which they’ve likely read about or seen discussed on talk shows. They read the labels and understand what certain ingredients can do for them. Daniel Sullivan, founder & CEO of Temple Turmeric, New York City, NY, for example, says, “Ingredients found in our 10 oz Green Alkalizer Raw Vinegar Drink have been studied for their ability to detoxify heavy metals, boost metabolism, support inflammation management and aid in restoring alkalinity. Ingredients such as raw coconut vinegar, and super greens such as chlorella, spirulina, barley grass and parsley naturally alkalize and support detox. Raw coconut and apple cider vinegars provide important minerals and vitamins such as potassium, calcium, sodium and magnesium.”

“Our Reed’s Ginger Brews are made with significant amounts of fresh ginger,” says Reed. “Ginger is anti-inflammatory and a digestive. Very functional. It feels like Mother Nature designed ginger to be the perfect addition to eating and digesting beings. We also make Reed’s Culture Club Kombucha which in addition to using a Kombucha Culture grown in Oolong and Yerba Mate tea we add many other functional ingredients such as Fresh Ginger, Goji and super fruits.”

Chris Campbell, President and CEO of Chameleon Cold-Brew, Austin, TX, explains that, “Cold brew coffee naturally has lower acidity than regular coffee due to the brewing process. During the prolonged steeping process, oils and tannins are released, resulting in a less acidic coffee filled with a smoother flavor, which means that people who have had to stop drinking hot coffee are now able to enjoy coffee again since you can drink Chameleon cold or hot.” Cold brew coffee is an example of a trend that not only can elevate a common beverage but also provide greater convenience. In fact, functional beverages are all about convenience, delivering nutrition in between meals in an easy-to-consume format.

Elevating Common BeveragesPeople are creatures of habit, craving old standbys such as coffee, tea or soda to drink. Luckily, these people can transition to natural and organic versions of their favorite beverages. A recent study reported by World Tea News states that “growing health concerns, increasing pesticide and chemical poisoning cases and improving per capita spending on organic products are expected to boost the demand for organic beverages across the globe” (3).

Horrow agrees. “Consumers, these days, are very much into experimenting with new, ethnic, healthy and functional ingredients and they are willing to talk about them to their networks...but [retailers] need to do more to more prominently display these products,” he says. Given the opportunity, consumers will pounce at trying something new and improved, but as Barron mentioned earlier, it all comes down to taste.

“Other conventional products do not provide the flavor profile most people are looking for in a healthy plant-based dairy alternative,” states Alkebulan, making the case for his firm’s banana milk. “Most people’s first food is bananas. Our beverage takes consumers back to their childhood. They love the naturally sweet taste of bananas. We provide the consumer with a more robust and complete nutrient profile that aligns with current beverage trends.” This brings up another important factor: nostalgia. The banana can be appealing because of the nostalgia factor, but unfortunately many unhealthy beverages also have this nostalgia factor. Even for the healthiest among us, there is nothing quite like that first sip of cola after not having had one in a long time. So, it stands to reason that having quality alternatives to mainstream brands is a great way to meet people in the middle.

Craft beverages are an excellent example of this. Beverages such as ginger beer that have been made with care and quality ingredients will beat out mainstream counterparts any day. Craft beverages also offer unique flavors that intrigue consumers, providing the same nostalgia but with a twist that satisfies both the desire for great taste and need to make better choices.

“Crafted beverages are no longer exclusive to cafes,” says Todd Carmichael, CEO and co-founder of LaColombe, based in Philadelphia, PA. “Consumers are seeing their beloved specialty coffee in a convenient ready-to-drinks format. And, consumers are looking for cleaner nutritional panel and authentic creation stories. They want to know that their drink is crafted with integrity. Consumers are also voting with their dollars to make social change, empowering brands who are active members in the global community.”

Indeed, consumers want their purchases to be more meaningful. A recent Forbes article shows that “More than 50% of millennials make an effort to buy products from companies that support the causes they care about,” according to research from Barkley, an independent advertising agency. And they’re twice as likely to care about whether or not their food is organic than are their non-millennial counterparts, according to Boston Consulting Group”(4).

You Can Taste IntegrityBesides quality, many consumers seek ethical products, not just ones that taste good. Many manufacturers of organic and natural beverages take this into account when producing their products. How companies source their ingredients and the care put into the process not only reflect positively on their brand but also have a positive influence on the quality of their products.

“At Temple, we take pride in core values of traceability and transparency,” says Sullivan. “Supply chain authenticity is at the heart of who we are. Working hand in hand with our Hawaiian growers, we’re proud to support domestic agriculture and breath life into the source. We’re with our seeds from when they’re planted until harvest and our organic Hawaiian turmeric is origin verified, pure and protected.”

Tea and coffee companies, in particular, have been placing great emphasis on their sourcing practices. “By sourcing organic, we support sustainable agriculture, using farming techniques that protect the environment, public health, human communities, and animal welfare,” says Barron. “This form of agriculture enables us to produce healthful food without compromising future generations’ ability to do the same. Further, by sourcing fair trade, we support families and livelihoods. We help farmers in developing countries build sustainable businesses that positively influence their communities.”

Beyond treating farmers abroad fairly, many firms also go out of their way to support local producers. “La Colombe is a leading coffee roaster known for ethical, long-term trading practices with coffee growers,” explains Carmichael. “Additionally, the Draft Latte is crafted with milk sourced from Beaver Creek farms just 10 miles away from the Draft Latte factory in Western Michigan. The milk is received raw and is not treated with rBST or artificial growth hormones. We take great pride in having full control over the production process from coffee to cow, concept to can.”

“Milkman is produced by our dedicated Wisconsin employees in our renowned USDA dairy facility,” said Gavin Hansen, Brand Manager of Milkman Milk, Harrison, NY, providing another example of supporting local facilities. “We exclusively source USA ingredients from grass fed cows raised by local milk co-ops. Just down to earth goodness from caring, ethical folks — pure and simple.”

Some firms take care to oversee the entire manufacturing process in order to guarantee quality. “POM Wonderful is vertically integrated, meaning we grow and harvest our pomegranates and bottle all our beverages,” says Adam Cooper, vice president of marketing at POM Wonderful based in Los Angeles, CA. “By managing the entire production process from tree to bottle, we guarantee that our fresh pomegranates, fresh arils and 100% pomegranate juice come from only one source — 100% California-grown Wonderful pomegranates.”

To close, Mintel reports that “In 2017, the food and drink industry will welcome more products that emphasize plants as key ingredients. More packaged products and recipes for home cooking will leverage fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains, botanicals and other plants as a way to align with consumers’ nearly omnipresent health and wellness priorities” (5). This and other studies indicate that consumers are not just interested in quenching their thirst anymore, they are looking for beverages that provide health benefits and the comfort of knowing that the beverages they are selecting are being sourced in an ethical way that support their moral standards.WF

  1. Beverage Trends 2017, Accessed May 22, 2017.
  2. Four Key Beverage Industry Trends for 2017 are Changing What Consumers Buy, Accessed May 24, 2017.
  3. Report Predicts Growth in Market for Organic Tea, Accessed May 24, 2017.
  4. The Year Of The Millennial Customer: Is Your Customer Experience Ready?, Accessed May 25, 2017.
  5. Mintel Announces Six Key Global Food and Drink Trends For 2017, Accessed May 23, 2017.
Published in WholeFoods Magazine July 2017