Functional Beverages: Thriving or Surviving?

By Rebecca Wright | July 1, 2009

A tough economy has been both a blessing and a curse for these products.

These days experts are viewing functional beverages, and most nutraceutical products for that matter, through the lens of a down economy, with most forecasting contractions in various sectors of the market. With the exception of a few highlights, new product activity has slowed considerably in the last year, especially from major players like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Dr Pepper Snapple Group.

Functional Beverages in a Down Economy

Mintel International, Chicago, IL, actually revised its functional beverage forecast from an earlier published report-"Functional Beverages US" August 2008-after reviewing the current economic environment. In its April 2009 reforecast, Mintel said it expects the market to decline 0.1% in 2008, compared to the previously published more optimistic growth rate of 3.5% for the same year.

In its August 2008 report, Mintel noted that the functional beverage market was worth a little more than $10 billion in 2007, exhibiting 15% growth between 2003 and 2007. According to the market researcher, this segment heavily relies on functional juice and juice drinks, which accounted for 56% of the total market share in 2008, and exhibited flat sales during the period 2003 to 2008. The consistent decline in the segment's market share, from 76% in 2003 to 56% in 2008, has slowed down the growth in the whole market in general, regardless of any gains made by enhanced water or energy drinks.

Even back in August, Mintel was aware of the challenges posed by premium prices of functional beverages, saying "high prices of functional beverages compared to regular beverages remained an obstacle in popular consumer acceptance."

In its April reforecast, Mintel reiterated this position: "As most functional beverages tend to be more expensive than the beverages without any functional positioning, consumers are likely to reduce demand in the current dismal economic climate. Additionally, consumers are becoming savvier in recognizing the fact that the benefits claimed by many functional beverages can actually be found in less pricier regular beverages."

For example, it said functional teas would start showing a downward trend due to increasing competition from regular teas, which offer considerable price savings over functional teas but also have the magic ingredient-antioxidants.

The market researcher also indicated that enhanced water, the segment exhibiting phenomenal growth from 2003 to 2008, would likely receive consumer criticism for its spurious marketing messages: no/low calorie thirst quenchers, when in reality most brands carry as much sugar as soda and fruit juice/juice drinks.

"Although functional beverages garner consumer interest on the strength of providing additional health benefits than regular beverages, most functional beverages suffer from common maladies that ail most other regular non-alcoholic beverages-excessive amounts of sugar and the presence of artificial ingredients," Mintel said. "This is going to be one of the major growth-inhibiting factors for functional beverages, as based on [our] research it would seem that consumers who purchase functional beverages tend to lead healthier lifestyles than consumers who do not purchase functional beverages."

On a Lighter Note

Still, health and convenience remain two of the biggest "mega trends" facing food and beverage manufacturers and they continue to play a significant role in shaping product strategy, according to a Packaged Facts report released in May. "Although the economic recession may prohibit some consumers from purchasing higher-priced specialty items, functional foods can actually save consumers money in the short term by pumping up basic food items with ingredients shoppers would otherwise have to get in the form of more expensive nutritional supplements," the market research firm said in its report, "Functional Foods & Beverages, 4th Edition." "Additionally, whereas in the past consumers were primarily reactive, trying to treat health problems after they arise, today they are more proactive, focusing on overall 'wellness' and turning grocery aisles into hunting grounds for healthful functional foods to prevent illness and chronic conditions."

Other industry experts, such as Jim Tonkin, head of Tonkin Consulting and Healthy Brand Builders, Scottsdale, AZ, are "bullish" on the functional beverage industry's future. "Functional beverages are generally surviving and several are thriving as a result of the current economy. They have maintained a traditional trajectory over the last four years," he said. "In many ways, I think we've just scratched the surface. Just based on the R&D in the market there is no lack of activity in this sector."

In his latest report, "Failures in Functional Foods and Beverages," Julian Mellentin, editor, U.K.-based New Nutrition Business, lays out the criteria necessary to create a successful functional food. One of the first things he suggests is making that functional food product a beverage. "As well as taste and convenience, there is one thing you can do to raise your new product's chances [of success]-make it a beverage," he said. "This is not a rule, but in the business of food and health it is in beverages where the most success stories are found-and where the future of functional food lies."

"Beverages are more convenient than formats such as bread and cookies: they are perceived by consumers as a 'healthy carrier' of health benefits in a way that confectionery is not, and they allow health to become an anytime option and a snack in a way that a 'functional meal' cannot," he added.

As far as new opportunities go, Mr. Tonkin said high interest lies in healthy carbonated beverages. "Carbonated soft drinks still-even though sales are declining-represent one of every two beverages purchased. What this tells us is consumers like carbonation; they're just tired of the empty calories and they want functionality."

However, there are some weaknesses that need to be addressed, particularly in relation to condition-specific products, which Mr. Tonkin believes will become increasingly relevant to consumers in the near future. "There's intrinsic brand trust that consumers need to gain in these products. When we say we're going to help with gut health we need to deliver efficacious doses of prebiotics and probiotics," he said. "If we don't take our obligation to consumers more seriously, we will eventually lose them. We must make sure they get what they paid for."

Another highlight in today's market is the tireless activity in the energy drink segment. It remains one of the healthiest avenues for functional beverage development, especially in the context of carbonated beverages. Although, controversy surrounding caffeine content and combining energy drinks with alcohol is starting to build significantly.

By the same token, health authorities, the government and the public are calling on carbonated beverage manufacturers to answer to claims of causing the obesity epidemic. In the eyes of some critics, soda is the next tobacco. Health expert Barry Popkin said in an April 30 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine that sugar-sweetened beverages "may be the single-largest driver of the obesity epidemic." Some believe the solution to curbing consumption is to impose a tax on sugary beverages, a move that could generate billions during the next several years.

Sweet & Simple

Recent outcries surrounding obesity and artificial ingredients have pushed numerous manufacturers to reformulate their products with two key attributes in mind: low/no sugar/calories and natural.

On the sweetener front, last December FDA awarded Reb-A (rebaudioside A), from the stevia plant, Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) status, paving the way for several new beverage launches, including Trop50, Vitaminwater 10, Sprite Green and All Sport Zero. This sweetener not only offers a means of lowering the calorie count of beverages, but it is also perceived as natural because it comes from the stevia plant.

The latest review from the Mintel Global New Products Database (GNPD) shows that in 2008 food and drink claims classified as "natural"-including all natural, no additives/preservatives, organic and wholegrain-were the most frequently featured on new products globally. In fact, "natural" claims appeared on nearly one in four (23%) food and drink launches in 2008, a 9% increase from 2007.

"Although convenience and the environment are popular talking points today, these benefits did not receive anywhere near the same level of attention as 'natural' claims did," said Lynn Dornblaser, leading new product expert at Mintel. "With economic struggles driving people toward a simpler way of life, we expect that food and drink manufacturers will continue to prize natural, wholesome benefits well into 2009."

While "natural" claims increased on new food and drink launches in 2008, fortified "plus" claims-such as added vitamins or calcium-took the hardest hit. These claims fell 20% during 2008, appearing on just one in 20 new product launches worldwide, according to Mintel GNPD.

"In the past, low-fat and low-calorie were the hallmarks of good nutrition and dieting, but today, that lifestyle seems pass. On top of this, fortified products are falling out of favor," commented Ms. Dornblaser. "Food and drink manufacturers today realize that natural and pure have become healthy eating ideals, as people look for holistic, genuine nutrition they can trust."

The move toward "natural" is also prompting many beverage companies to revisit the old standby sweetener sugar, in many cases using it in replacement of high fructose corn syrup for recent beverage introductions.

Indeed, the Sugar Association applauded the efforts of PepsiCo earlier this year for using "all natural sugar rather than high fructose corn syrup," citing this move as a boon to local economies. "The sugar industry employs over 146,000 workers, contributes $10 billion to local economies and provides community support on the local level across the United States," the organization said. "While these products are only on the shelves for an eight-week period, we are confident that consumers will like the clean, crisp taste of Pepsi Throwback and Mountain Dew Throwback and encourage Pepsi to continue with these two drinks."

New Product Round-Up

Coca-Cola, Atlanta, GA, continues to experiment in the functional beverage space both internally and through acquisitions. Internally, the company ran into some issues with its Diet Coke Plus brand earlier this year when FDA sent the company a warning letter stating that the product was misbranded. The agency said foods labeled "plus" must have at least 10% more nutrients than comparable products. The agency also said it is inappropriate to add extra nutrients to snack foods such as carbonated beverages. The company responded to FDA but said it had no intentions of changing the label.

In terms of acquisitions, Coca-Cola, through its subsidiary Beverages and Beyond Brands Inc., purchased Bazza High-Energy Tea, a small entrepreneurial brand based on the African life experiences, tea experience and knowledge of its creator, Barry Cooper, founder of Cooper Tea. Mr. Cooper said the deal was instrumental in bringing the brand to a wider audience.

Coca-Cola also formed an agreement with Hansen Natural Corporation, Corona, CA, last October for the distribution of Monster Energy in six Western European countries, Canada and selected territories in the U.S. These agreements complement Hansen's existing relationship with Anheuser-Busch (AB) and will not affect Hansen's agreement with AB for the on-premise channel nationwide. "We believe that the combination of these two leading distribution systems will provide us with an unrivaled distribution network in North America," Hansen CEO Rodney Sacks said.

Speaking of distribution, Coca-Cola continues to expand the reach of Honest Tea, the Bethesda, MD-based company in which it purchased a 40% stake in early 2008. According to IRI, the deal seems to be going well so far, as Honest Tea's sales were up 66% this January compared to a year ago. Most recently, Honest Tea added Superfruit Punch with Yumberry and Goji Berry to its Honest Ade line of organic beverages. Honest Ade Superfruit Punch combines these antioxidant-rich berries with organic strawberry and pear juice. The beverage contains less than 50 calories.

Coca-Cola also introduced Sprite Green in early 2009. The beverage is positioned as a reduced-calorie offering that contains the GRAS sweetener Truvia, which is based on the stevia plant. Sprite Green contains 50 calories per 8.5-oz. serving and 5% lemon juice. This product was the first of what the company expected would be many reduced, low- and zero-calorie beverages sweetened with Truvia.

On the heels of this introduction, Coke's Odwalla division, Half Moon Bay, CA, added two new reduced-calorie juice drinks to its product line. Mojito Mambo and Pomegranate Strawberry also contain the natural sweetener Truvia, as well as 50% of the daily value (DV) for vitamins C and E. The products contain 50 calories per 8-oz. serving and are sweetened with a combination of Truvia, organic evaporated cane juice and fruit juices.

Most recently, Coke's Vitaminwater brand debuted Vitaminwater10, which is sweetened with Truvia and erythritol. The product contains 10 calories and 3 grams of sugar per serving. It is available in Triple Antioxidant (acai-blueberry-pomegranate), Essential (orange-orange), Energy (tropical citrus) and Multi-V (lemonade) varieties. Coca-Cola is also working feverishly to plug Vitaminwater into its sizable distribution system, a move that seems to be adding significant sales to Vitaminwater's bottom line.

Considering its R&D pipeline "well-primed," PepsiCo chief executive Indra Nooyi said in a December Seattle Times article that the company will refrain from any new acquisitions of North American drink manufacturers in the current economic climate.

Taking a page out of Coca-Cola's playbook, PepsiCo, Purchase, NY, added three new zero-calorie, naturally sweetened flavors to its SoBe Lifewater line in early 2009: Yumberry Pomegranate, Fuji Apple Pear and Black & Blue Berry. Each contains PureVia, made from a highly pure extract of the stevia plant leaf. In addition to a full day's supply of vitamin C, each bottle contains 20% DV for vitamin E, as well as 10% DV for vitamins B6, B12, niacin (B3) and pantothenic acid (B5). In June it added two more flavors, Acai Fruit Punch and Mango Melon.

PepsiCo also leveraged the calorie-reducing power of PureVia for its Tropicana line. Debuting in March, Trop 50 is positioned as a light orange juice beverage with 50% less sugar and calories.

Aiming to be an undisputed leader in energy drinks, earlier this year PepsiCo signed a distribution deal with Rockstar, the No. 3 energy drink in the category behind Monster (No. 2) and Red Bull (No. 1). According to PepsiCo, the multiyear agreement "dramatically increases its share of the fast-growing, highly profitable energy drink market." Rockstar will be distributed by The Pepsi Bottling Group (PBG), PepsiAmericas, Pepsi Bottling Ventures and other independent Pepsi-Cola bottlers in most of the U.S. and all of Canada. PepsiCo also possess the No. 4 energy drink in the market, AMP, which launched several years ago and is part of the Mountain Dew line.

To help differentiate the full range of PepsiCo's Gatorade offerings from traditional Gatorade Thirst Quencher, the company initiated a redesign late last year so that each beverage could convey the attitude of a tough-love coach or personal trainer, through in-your-face names on the label and nutrition benefits inside. As a result of these changes, Gatorade Fierce is now "Bring It"-athletes have always had to "Bring It" to their practices, competitions and workouts and now the beverage will project this mindset and contain an "excellent source" (25% DV) of B vitamins (B3, B5, B6) to help meet the demands of energy metabolism; Gatorade X-Factor changed to "Be Tough"-"Be Tough" enjoys the added benefit of an "excellent source" (20% DV) of the antioxidant vitamin E to help protect the active body; Gatorade AM is now called "Shine On"-developed with morning flavors, this beverage helps morning exercisers to "Shine On" during their workouts and contains an "excellent source" (20% DV) of vitamin C to help active people as they attack their day; and Gatorade Rain became "No Excuses"-active people know there are "No Excuses" for missing a workout or activity.

In tandem with these adjustments, low-calorie G2 was also reformulated. Now it delivers significant nutrition enhancements by providing an "excellent source" (25% DV) of B vitamins (B3, B5, B6) and a "good source" (10% DV) of vitamins C and E, all of which help meet the nutrient needs of active individuals.

Lastly, Gatorade Tiger was updated to call out its new "Focus" benefit, inspired by the legendary mental toughness of Tiger Woods. The product reformulation included the addition of L-theanine, which, combined with carbohydrate and advanced hydration, helps promote mental focus, according to the company. Gatorade Tiger Focus also provides the added nutrition benefit of a "good source" (10% DV) of vitamin E, half the calories, and 25% more electrolytes compared to Gatorade Thirst Quencher.

In the enhanced water segment, PepsiCo re-launched Propel. With just 10 calories per serving, Propel is available in a variety of flavors and most contain antioxidants (vitamins C and E) and B vitamins. In 2009, the brand modernized its look, packaging, flavors and portfolio offerings, including adding a new Blueberry Pomegranate flavor to accompany existing Grape, Kiwi-Strawberry, Berry and Lemon flavors. The brand also launched two new sub-lines with added nutrients: Propel Body is available in Peach Mango and contains 10% of the DV of fiber; and Propel Mind came back in Black Cherry flavor, containing antioxidant vitamin E plus choline, an essential nutrient in the brain.

Dr Pepper Snapple Group, Plano, TX, launched a new functional beverage within its 7UP line this year. Cherry 7UP Antioxidant is a pink-hued beverage combining the flavor of 7UP with a hint of cherry flavor, along with 10% of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for antioxidant vitamin E.

On the Snapple side of the business, the company initiated the most significant makeover in the brand's 37-year history with a new formula, reduced calories and packaging that promotes the blend of healthy green and tasty black tea leaves.

Dr Pepper Snapple Group also entered the stevia arena this year by way of the All Sport brand. The company claims All Sport Naturally Zero is the first and only zero-calorie sports drink sweetened with Rebiana, the all-natural sweetener derived from stevia. Formulated with electrolytes and B vitamins, All Sport is available in Dragonfruit, Strawberry Star Fruit and Mandarin Orange flavors. Dr Pepper Snapple Group holds an equity stake in Big Red, Inc., the parent company of All Sport, Inc., and is the primary distributor of the All Sport brand.

Dr Pepper Snapple Group also expanded the energy drink offerings in its Venom line. The addition of Fruit Punch and Mango flavors, called Death Adder and Killer Taipan, respectively, slid onto store shelves in April. The Venom Energy line originally launched in June 2008 with two flavors: Black Mamba (regular) and Mojave Rattler (low-carbohydrate/low calorie).

Looking to corner the children's functional beverage market, Nestle HealthCare Nutrition, Minnetonka, MN, launched BOOST Kid Essentials Nutritionally Complete Drink. The product, designed for children ages 1 through 13, contains "immune-strengthening" probiotics delivered through the BOOST Kid Essentials straw. BOOST Kid Essentials Drink also contains 25 essential vitamins and minerals, 7 grams of protein, antioxidants and 244 calories. It is available in Chocolate, Vanilla and Strawberry flavors.

More recently, Nestle launched two fruit juice beverages designed to benefit children during different stages of growth. Juicy Juice Brain Development contains 16 mg of DHA per serving and is available in Apple and Grape flavors. Juicy Juice Immunity contains zinc, vitamin C and 3 grams of prebiotic fiber per serving and is available in Apple and Berry flavors.

Abbott Laboratories, Columbus, OH, through its EAS division, expanded its Myoplex brand in June with a new sports recovery drink. According to the company, EAS Myoplex Strength Formula nutrition shake, developed by sports nutrition scientists, helps consumers who are on-the-go refuel after physical activity. The drink is loaded with 25 grams of protein, in addition to 23 vitamins and minerals. The new Myoplex product comes in Chocolate Cream, Vanilla Cream, Strawberry Cream and Banana Cream flavors.

Probiotic pioneer The Dannon Company, White Plains, NY, expanded its Activia brand this year with two new products: Activia Dairy Drinks and Activia Fiber, both of which contain the proprietary probiotic culture Bifidus Regularis. Activia Dairy Drinks are available in Peach, Mixed Berry, Strawberry and Vanilla flavors. Activia Fiber provides a "good source" of fiber, with 3 grams per 4-oz. serving, and is available in three varieties: Strawberry with Cereal, Vanilla with Cereal and Peach with Cereal.

In a slight departure from nutrition bars and energy gels, Clif Bar, Berkeley, CA, released Clif Quench nationwide in June. The company says the drink provides an ideal balance of nutrients a thirsty body needs, including electrolytes and carbohydrates. Unlike other sports drinks, Clif Bar claims the beverage contains no artificial colors, sweeteners or preservatives. It is available in Fruit Punch, Orange, Lime-Ade and Strawberry Citrus flavors.

At the beginning of the year, Jones Soda Co., Seattle, WA, launched Jones GABA, a tea-juice blend containing the amino acid gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Each 12-oz. can contains 150 mg of natural PharmaGABA to support brain focus and clarity. The product is available in Fuji Apple, Lemon Honey, Nectarine and Grapefruit flavors. According to the company, Jones GABA is the only beverage in the U.S. with natural PharmaGABA, which studies have shown improves mental focus, balance and clarity, while reducing stress.

On the weight management front, Tree Top, Selah, WA, introduced trim this year. This low-calorie beverage contains one serving of fruit per serving and is available in Tangerine Pineapple, Mango Peach and Strawberry Kiwi flavors. It also contains fiber, chromium and L-carnitine. According to the company, trim addresses three important needs consumers stated they wanted in a functional beverage: one full fruit serving, weight management functionality and a beverage that still maintains its great taste, even after fortifications have been added.

Prune aficionados Sunsweet Growers, Yuba City, CA, launched a line of Herbal Waters earlier this year. Available in four varieties, the Herbal Waters line blends herbs and organic fruit juices. "Calming" contains spearmint and lavender; "Replenishing" contains dragon fruit, hibiscus and isotonic minerals; "Focusing" contains ginger, black tea and ashwagandha extract; and "Energizing" contains green tea, guarana and lemongrass.

Pacific Natural Foods, Tualatin, OR, also launched several ready-to-drink (RTD) organic herb-inspired beverages this year. Simply Mate contains yerba mate and is available in Peach Passion, Lemon Ginger, Citrus Lychee and Traditional flavors. Simply Tea is a green tea product offered in Kiwi Mango, Tangerine, Peach, Wild Berry and Unsweetened flavors. Simply Coffee iced coffee beverage contains 4 grams of protein and 15% of the DV for calcium. It is available in Latte, Vanilla Latte and Mocha.

Hint Inc., San Francisco, CA, added four new flavors to its Hint Water line late last year: Hibiscus Vanilla, Watermelon, Honeydew Hibiscus and Blackberry. These flavors join nine others, including Mango-Grapefruit, Pomegranate-Tangerine, Lime, Raspberry-Lime, Peppermint, Pear, Tropical Punch, Cucumber and Strawberry Kiwi. Hint Waters are all-natural and sugar-free.

EIRO Research, Dallas, TX, launched EIRO Energy, which contains a proprietary blend of guarana, green tea, ginseng and ginkgo biloba, as well as natural fruit juices from black cherry, pomegranate and blueberry.

Following an antioxidant platform, mix1 Beverage Company, Boulder, CO, unveiled Hi-Antioxidant Fiber Drink, which contains 9 servings of fruits and vegetables from a broad spectrum of antioxidants, 9 grams of whey protein isolate and 8 grams of soluble fiber. The product is available in Dark-Berry and Orange-Carrot flavors.

Exploiting a unique herbal ingredient, Sayan Health, Los Angeles, CA, introduced Chaga, a line of RTD health beverages that contain Siberian chaga. A healthy herbal ingredient rich in antioxidants, chaga contains a variety of natural compounds that support better health. The drinks are available in Original, Peach and Raspberry flavors.

OOBA, Pleasanton, CA, recently expanded its line of lightly sweetened sparkling hibiscus beverages to include three new flavors: Hibiscus & Blackberry, Hibiscus & Vanilla and Hibiscus & Pineapple. Each contains antioxidant-rich hibiscus extract and 90 calories per serving.

Bolthouse Farms, Bakersfield, CA, launched Heart Healthy Pear Merlot fruit juice, containing Barliv barley betafiber, a natural soluble fiber. One serving contains 0.75 grams of this fiber.

Capitalizing on the growing popularity of coconut water, The Hurricane Juice Company, Sarasota, FL, introduced EQ-Thirst Equalizer. It contains young coconut water and fruit essences, which provide a balance of electrolytes, minerals and carbohydrates for rehydration. It is available in three flavors: Tangelo, Lemon Lime and Mango Pineapple.

In the same vein, Oradell, NJ-based ZICO launched ZICO Coconut Water, which contains 100% pure coconut water, extracted from young or "green" coconuts. It also contains more potassium than a banana and five essential electrolytes per serving. The product is available in three varieties: Natural, Mango and Passion Fruit-Orange Peel.

Using sparkling functional beverages as its focus, Hank's Beverage Company, Philadelphia, PA, unveiled Hank's Gourmet Infusions in late 2008. The products contain 60% of the RDA for vitamins C, E and B12, 15% of the RDA for calcium, and 75 mg of epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) from green tea. The beverages are available in Berry, Green Apple, Orange Cream and Root Beer varieties.

Feeling the need to connect with nature, Tizane Beverages, Washington, D.C., unveiled Botanicals, a new line of beverages available in Hibiscus, Lemongrass and Jasmine flavors. The 80-calorie Hibiscus variety contains hibiscus flower, rose hips, anise seed, spearmint leaf, lemon balm and blue agave nectar. The 60-calorie Lemongrass flavor contains hibiscus flower, anise seed, lemon balm, eucalyptus, spearmint leaf, catmint and blue agave nectar, along with lemongrass. The 70-calorie Jasmine flavor contains jasmine flower, hibiscus flower, linden leaf and flower, and blue agave nectar.

Borojo Beverages, Boca Raton, FL, launched Borojo Energy, an organic energy drink that contains the South American superfruit borojo. Available in Strawberry Kiwi Watermelon, Pomegranate Acai Blueberry and Guava Passionfruit flavors, the product contains 50 calories per serving, along with green tea, yerba mate and guarana.

In the smoothie arena, Sunny Delight Beverage Co., Cincinnati, OH, introduced FruitSimple 100% Pure Fruit Smoothies. They are available in Strawberry Banana, Mixed Berry, Orange Mango and Pomegranate Blueberry flavors.

Focusing on smoothies with a South American twist, Zola, San Francisco, CA, unveiled a new line of Brazilian Superfruit Smoothies. Available in four varieties, "Immunity Smoothie" contains a blend of acerola, camu camu and acai, which delivers antioxidants, vitamin C and bioflavonoids; "Energy Smoothie" blends exotic caja fruit and acai, along with yerba mate and natural guarana seed for sustained energy; "Superfood Smoothie" contains a "green blend boost," in addition to cupuacu, vitamin B-packed graviola and acai; and "Antioxidant Smoothie" contains a daily dose of antioxidants with free-radical-fighting acai berries.

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