Building a Healthier Beverage

Pop the top and hoist a cold one to the new approaches in making drinkables that function as more than mere thirst-slakers

By David Feder, RD, Technical Editor

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We’re a nation obsessed with health ... and with beverages. Making a healthier beverage in 2000 was easy -- you just added calcium or vitamin C and you were done. By 2005, all you needed was green tea or a squirt of pomegranate. But as we near the second decade of the 21st century, there’s a whole lot more science and technology going into making better-for-you liquid refreshments.

Superfruits are still hot, both on their own and in familiar, antioxidant-loaded flavor combinations (think açai-blueberry). “As globalization continues and market demand continues to increase, we will likely see more superfruits that few have ever heard of making their way into our markets,” says Sean Poynter, vice president of new product development for mangosteen-based beverage maker XanGo LLC (www.xango.com), Lehi, Utah.

But for all their popularity, there still are difficulties in playing in navigating the superfruit market.

Look to the Future

“With the advent of a lot of healthy offerings over the past several years, many consumers accepted giving up a little flavor in exchange for health benefits,” says Greg Quinn of The Currant Co. “Everyone in this business is watching this category carefully in the present economic environment. So far, it seems the high-end, refrigerated health beverages — usually featured in the produce departments — are holding their own and even seeing a little increase. While consumers are cutting back, they’re still concerned with health benefits and will still spend more for a product that is healthier than a less expensive, less healthy one.”

XanGo’s Sean Poynter agrees. “The healthy beverage category is only going to continue to grow. The Natural Marketing Institute reported a 26 percent growth in functional beverages in 2008. Baby boomers represent the largest segment in our economy, and they are aging. As they do, they are changing the rules and saying that extending their lifespan is not good enough. They also want to improve their quality of life as they age, and this is where many are turning to functional beverages and foods to help support their ongoing health.”

“When sourcing a superfruit from remote regions of the world, some companies may find managing their supply chain to be a challenge,” he continues. “In 2008, our challenges included record high fuel and commodity prices. While prices have eased a bit, we are now in a period of less predictability.”

Poynter also reminds that attention to relationships at each point of the supply chain is critical to success, especially as world economic and political turmoil continues.

“Political upheavals in various parts of the world are contributing to uncertainty,” he says. “Any hiccups along the way could add unnecessary cost, diminish the integrity and quality of the fruit and disrupt the balance of supply and demand. That’s where the strong relationships with suppliers and a good reputation and relationship with government leaders help.”

Beverage trends extend to healthier drinks for kids, too. “There will be a continued effort in the development of natural, all-natural and organic beverages,” says Thomas Arndt, president of Los Angeles-based Y Water Inc. (www.ywater.us), “a new concept in children’s beverages,” as its motto states.

The company manufactures organic, low-sugar beverages for children, packaged in Y-shaped bottles. The four varieties — Bone Water (enriched with calcium, fluoride and vitamins A, C and D), Brain Water (with zinc, molybdenum and vitamins B6, B12 and C), Muscle Water (with magnesium, potassium, selenium, vitamin A and C) and Immune Water (fortified with a complex of antioxidants including vitamins A, C and E) — have no preservatives, artificial coloring or artificial sweeteners, are infused with vitamins and minerals and provide a healthful alternative to sugary, non-nutritious choices.

Mostly, it’s about flavor

In its list of the top 10 flavors for 2009, Bell Flavors & Fragrances (www.bellff.com), Northbrook, Ill., anticipates beverage flavors to keep pushing the envelope of the exotic. By tracking sample requests, global trend scouting and externally sourced data, the company predicts top upcoming flavors could include: yumberry, golden kiwi, lavender, South African peppadew, elderberry, the Asian citrus yuzu, juniper and Meyer lemon.

Hank’s Gourmet Beverages (www.hanksbeverages.com), Trevose, Pa., is an early adopter of the functional carbonated beverages trend. Its Infusions line features “comfort” flavors — Berry, Green Apple, Orange Cream and Root Beer Float — infused with all-natural vitamins B12, C and E sourced from fruits and vegetables; calcium (from skim milk and cream); the powerful green tea extract antioxidant epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG); and more.

The continual growth of superfruits, especially in beverages, is a point of interest for Wild Flavors Inc. (www.wildflavors.com), Cincinnati. The company cites its experience with beverages, including juices, flavors, ingredients and extracts, as allowing it to create successful superfruit products. Wild is focusing on the current flavors as well as some unfamiliar ones coming over the horizon, including borojo, camu camu and baobab — all of which the company claims “extensive familiarity (for) sourcing, creating systems and applying to beverage concepts.”

Wild also promotes its line of Health Ingredient Technology & Solutions (HITS), which can be added to superfruits already known for their intrinsic health values. These systems can be combined with other nutraceutical ingredients in beverages for specific health objectives, such as bone and joint health, brain health, heart health, holistic sleep, immunity, inside beauty, marine nutraceuticals and weight loss.

Currant Co. (www.currantc.com), Staatsburg, N.Y., has a line of black currant-based beverages that could be the “next big thing” in this crowded niche, because the popularity of currant-based beverages in Europe has a long history. According to President Greg Quinn, a recent study by the Scottish Crop Research Institute found black currants to be the “No. 1 fruit for the complete range of nutraceuticals as compared to the 20 most popular fruits — including pomegranate.”

The company just launched five new nectar beverages under its CurrantC brand -- Strawberry/Kiwi, Clementine, Boysenberry, Passion Fruit and Blueberry -- to accompany its original Black Currant Nectar.

Technical challenges also exist when it comes to antioxidant beverages. “The two most challenging hurdles to overcome are developing a processing method that retains the maximum amount of antioxidants and other nutrients, and flavor, flavor, flavor,” says Quinn. Currant Co. met this challenge by using “cold-filled” bottling techniques plus changing packaging to BPA-free plastic bottles, allowing the beverages to retain the highest amount of nutrients while ensuring safety.

Building a healthier beverage isn’t just a matter of adding health ingredients to an existing formulation. “Many functional ingredients, such as protein and vitamin supplements, often have unpleasant tastes,” explains Connie Banning, solutions manager--beverage business unit for FONA International (www.fona.com), Geneva, Ill. “The flavors must be customized to neutralize off-notes and create a pleasing profile, especially when a serving size can be upwards of 16 oz.”

Mash Sato, head of R&D for Ito En North America Inc. (www.itoen.com), Sonoma, Calif., concurs. “Unlike creating dry tablet supplement products, creating healthy liquid beverages that have a water activity of more than 0.85 is quite challenging.” Ito En, which makes exotic tea-based beverages, created its Ito En Shots, 6.4-oz. short tea beverages with added catechins and polyphenols, powerful antioxidants natural to tea.

“In such beverage formulations, dietary nutrients tend to reform [separate] easily from the effects of storage conditions, such as heat. Based on the FDA legislation, dietary nutrients that do not have their RDI declared on the package must meet the same level at the end of its shelf life. This means that ensuring antioxidant levels is difficult. Fortunately,” Sato adds, “Ito has been able to develop the science to preserve these ingredients through proprietary brewing methods.”


Note to Marketing
“The list of functional ingredients to be used in healthy beverages grows bigger every day,” says Connie Banning at FONA International (www.fona.com). “The smartest ingredients to leverage are those that have immediate benefit, such as ingredients to help with intestinal health, or ingredients that have a perceived benefit, such as antioxidants.

“Beverage companies need to remember the basics to developing their marketing strategies in this opportunistic area,” she continues. She notes the “need to have a good understanding of what consumers are looking for — sustainable energy, bone health or lower blood pressure. Every age group, from baby boomers to Gen-Y, are looking for something different and the key is to know who you are marketing to and whether the health benefit is believable to them.”

A burgeoning challenge to developing beverages with superfruit antioxidants, however, is pointed out by Greg Quinn of The Currant Co. “Such claims have become so ubiquitous with the healthy beverage segment that it doesn’t quite have the impact that it did in the beginning. Antioxidants are still an important component of any healthy beverage profile but we see that, more and more, consumers are looking past just antioxidants to what other nutraceuticals, such as vitamins and minerals, the drink may contain.”

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