Beverages No Longer Equal Empty Calories

Shoring up the perceived beverage weak spot in the modern diet has been the objective of many processors and ingredient providers. As a result, much of what we see on the shelves has taken on a new look, feel and taste.

By Mark Anthony, Ph.D., Technical Editor

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Modern beverages have shared much of the blame for the obesity epidemic. Often labeled the ultimate source of "empty calories," made up of sugar solutions with no nutrients, that image — earned or not — is about to change.

"The trend I'm watching closely is the increasing demand for a 'meal in a bottle,' " says J.D. Sethi, founder of DAHLicious Lassi, Tewksbury, Mass. "That is, beverages that can replace meals."

Lassi is a traditional Indian beverage, a smoothie in the form of a slow-cultured blend of Indian-style yogurt and pure fruit. "According to a recent PepsiCo press release, the traditional definitions of snacks/foods as dry and beverages as liquid will change," adds Sethi. "With this trend, I believe more manufacturers will be adding real fruits, and even veggies, to their beverages."

It's already happening, of course. Campbell Soup has enjoyed much success with its V8 V-Fusion, which squeezes a full serving of vegetables and a full serving of fruit into each serving.

Meals in a bottle are happening, too. Abbott Laboratories is a broad-based health care company, but its Abbott Nutrition division, which originated as Ross Laboratories, looks very much like a dairy, filling single-serve bottles of Ensure, PediaSure and Glucerna – as well as EAS Myoplex nutrition shakes for athletes.

Consumers now demand beverages that perform, with ingredients that support health including probiotics, antioxidants and superfruits. A clean label also is integral to this trend, driving consumers toward beverages that contain natural flavors and colors. To meet these demands, ingredient providers are supplying beverage developers a host of viable options.

Non-dairy probiotic beverages are becoming popular. Good Belly, a line of juice and cultured oat flour-based, kefir-like beverages from NextFoods Inc., Boulder, Colo., has been a force in teaching consumers delicious, functional probiotic drinks need not be dairy based.

"GoodBelly products are designed to appeal to vegans and people with allergies to soy- and milk-based beverages," says Alan Murray, CEO of GoodBelly. "The specific probiotic bacteria in GoodBelly thrive in the acidic environment of juices." GoodBelly Splash, a new launch, is a reduced-calorie probiotic juice.

Bigelow Tea uses the probiotic BC30 from Ganeden Biotech in the Lemon Ginger variety of its Herb Plus line of teas. The probiotic strain is protected by a spore, which allows the probiotic to survive the heat and pressure of manufacturing processes – and of tea making.

An explosion of non-dairy beverage forms in recent years has seen milk replacers made from everything from soy to nuts, even hemp. But until recently, not from coconuts. Eugene, Ore.-based Turtle Mountain Inc.'s, So Delicious Dairy Free coconut milk and cultured coconut milk products fixed that.

"Our coconut milk beverage is completely different than coconut water," says Chris Turek, marketing services manager. "Coconut water is the liquid found exclusively in green, immature coconuts. Our base ingredient is essentially the pure coconut milk derived from pressing the white fleshy meat of mature coconuts. Then we add stabilizers and fortify with calcium and essential vitamins.

Mio from Kraft
On March 7 Kraft launches Mio "liquid water enhancer." Flip open the cap and drip a few drops into a glass or bottle of water to flavor it to your liking. Mio has no artificial flavors, caffeine or calories and comes in six flavors.

"The result is a product that can be used as a dairy milk replacement, even in cooking and baking," he continues. "Since our cultured coconut milk contains numerous live, active cultures, it possesses similar qualities to dairy cultured products. However, coconut milk is unique in medium-chain fatty acids, which support the body's immune system and get processed by the body as energy."

Since the beginning of the decade, coconut water-based drinks have been flourishing. Companies such as O.N.E., Zico and Vita Coco have released these primarily in single-serve TetraPak containers, but a recent launch of Vita Coco's larger, 32-oz. size points to the mainstreaming of coconut water drinks. An excellent source of electrolytes and phytochemicals in a naturally slightly sweet base, consumers find the product refreshing and invigorating.

Fruits, tea, whey
Nothing shouts modern beverages like the so-called superfruits, the ones rich in antioxidants. While the term originally was applied to exotic berries from the Amazon, blueberries, blackberries and other antioxidant-rich domestic fruits have joined those ranks.

"We're seeing an increasing amount of requests for natural fruit flavors, specifically those fruits rich in antioxidants," says Brandon Olson, director of R&D for Premium Ingredients International, Carol Stream, Ill. Some of the challenges include retaining the flavor, nutrients, aroma and color of the original fruit/juice in a shelf-stable format.

"We overcome these obstacles by using fruits in various forms, including freeze-dried fruit powders and spray-dried juice powders, which maintain high concentrations of the original fruit and can be matched to other flavors through research and development."

Exotic reds, blue and purple fruits are still trendy—açai remains a growing market. But one superfruit suddenly garnering attention is as American as cherry pie. Tart cherries, also called "pie cherries," are gaining ground as a superfruit. According to the Cherry Marketing Institute, Lansing, Mich., compounds in tart cherries could help athletes recover faster from tough workouts. A study recently reported in the American College of Sports Medicine's journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise suggests cherry juice may decrease oxidative damage in the muscles of hard-training athletes. This is the latest in a growing body of evidence linking cherries to muscle recovery.


The green tea trend shows no signs of crashing. Tea is one of the oldest beverages known, and its association with health, energy and comfort will keep it a top beverage choice. And so, too, the functional components connected to tea.

L-TeaActive from Blue California, Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., is one example. The L-theanine ingredient recently was certified as GRAS by the FDA and is produced as a functional ingredient for the beverage and food industries. "L-theanine has been used for many years as a dietary ingredient," explains Cecilia McCollum, Blue California's executive vice president. It's been shown to reduce anxiety and stress without causing drowsiness.

Blue California derives the amino acid from green tea through a proprietary manufacturing process. "The affordability of our ingredient helps ensure finished products can include enough of the active ingredient to be effective," says McCollum.

And pumping up beverages with protein isn't new, but the sources of protein have become more designer-friendly. "One of the very hot trends in the nutrition industry is micronized products that result in higher ingestion and solubility," says Kris Hanson, Premium Ingredients' sales product development manager. "When amino acids and proteins are micronized, it creates a homogeneous product that is easier to flavor and blend with other ingredients, especially in functional beverages."

Probably the biggest source of protein for beverage formulation has been from whey. Whey proteins are found in the liquid component of milk following cheese making. They are complete proteins, providing the essential amino acids in an optimum blend for human consumption.

Hilmar Ingredients, Hilmar, Calif. provides a variety of whey protein hydrolysates to match specific beverage needs, says Gwen Bargetzi, director of marketing. For example, Hilmar 8350 has a bland taste with reduced bitterness and contains pre-digested proteins, short peptides and free amino acids. Hilmar 8200 is 80 percent whey protein hydrolysates and is designed specifically to remain heat stable during standard methods of pasteurization, ultra-high temperature processing and in beverages with pH levels as low as 2.5. Hilmar 9420 is designed to reduce astringency in low pH applications while delivering optimized flavor in juices and other acid beverages.

Debate over colorants
Color additives have been under scrutiny in all products of late, but February brought a huge challenge for beverages in particular. The Center for Science in the Public Interest asked the FDA to ban caramel coloring because most colorants contain two suspected cancer-causing substances. The chemicals 2-methylimidazole (2-MEI) and 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI) were said to cause cancer in some mice and rats, according to 2003 and 2005 studies by the National Institutes of Health, according to CSPI. Caramel coloring is used in soft drinks, especially colas, and sometimes in beer, soy sauce and other foods.

"Caramel color has undergone complete food safety testing more than 20 times in the past 35 years and meets rigorous food safety standards around the world," according to a response from colorant supplier D.D. Williamson, Louisville, Ky. "There has never been a study that showed any health risk from caramel color."

The company also notes 4-MEI is formed naturally in most cooking, broiling, roasting and grilling. Nevertheless, the point remains: Consumers seek natural ingredients in all products, the less the chemical imprint the better.

To eliminate synthetic colors in formulations, food & beverage manufacturers can choose from a wide array of natural alternatives, says a D.D. Williamson promotional piece. "Natural colors alone do not have the same color intensity as synthetics, and some (not all) are less economical on a dosage basis; however, technological advances have reduced this performance gap." D.D. Williamson has a wide array of natural and organic color additives.

Lycored Corp., Orange, N.J., continually develops new ranges of natural colors in liquid and powder solutions. Targeting the orange, red and yellow portion of the spectrum, Lycored's natural colorants are formulated to be stable across a wide range of temperatures, pH and light conditions, allowing for an extended shelf life for beverages. Designed with vegetarians and vegans in mind, these formulations can replace carmine and synthetic beta-carotene in many current applications. They work well in a variety of beverages including, those rich in the acid vitamin C.

"As a general rule, natural colors should be added as late in the process as possible to avoid exposing the pigments to stress that could later impact on the stability of the color in the final product," says Andrew Kendrick, Lycored's international technical development manager. "However, it is equally important to work with an experienced specialist in natural colors to ensure optimum expression and preservation of the color."

The Fusion Precise Natural Colors line from Sensient Colors, St. Louis, consists of pre-dispersed and emulsified colorants via manufacturing processes that ensure stable emulsions. "Selective plant breeding programs and new hybrid creation are important factors in producing more stable botanical sources," says Mark Goldschmidt, technical director.

Most of Sensient's natural colors are non-GMO and preservative- and allergen-free. "People want cleaner, more wholesome ingredients in their products and our natural colors possess compounds that promote health and wellness," says Goldschmidt. "We offer a complete portfolio of natural colors, such as carotenoids and anthocyanins, which capture many of the healthy attributes inherent in colors derived from fruits and vegetables, for example antioxidants, vitamins and polyphenols."

Stevia's slow progress
The 800-lb. gorilla in the room with beverage providers is still the 800-lb. gorilla: He used to be a 400 lb. gorilla. In other words, calories — specifically from sweeteners — matter. Consumers want natural ingredients and functional ingredients, but they want them in beverages that won't break the calorie bank. Yet low- and zero-calories ingredients can taste funny.

Stevia burst on the scene with FDA approval 2 ½ years ago as a natural, plant-derived, non-nutritive sweetener with centuries of safe usage in other countries. With Coca-Cola as a co-applicant with Cargill on one FDA petition and PepsiCo teamed with Merisant's Whole Earth Sweetener on the other, it looked like stevia would quickly supplant all other sweeteners in beverages. Instead, its progress has been slow.

"Although stevia penetration in the beverage category has met expectations thus far, there is still a long way to go to reach the full potential of the sweetener," says Sidd Purkayastha, vice president of global technical development & support for PureCircle, one of the world's largest suppliers of stevia, with offices in Oak Brook, Ill. "Any new sweetener takes considerable time to get to the market position (sucralose and aspartame as example). Stevia has had a much better category penetration than sucralose had in its early age. To use a baseball analogy, we are in the first or second inning of the game."

Interest in stevia – and concerns about obesity – are not limited to the U.S. GLG Life Tech Corp. (www.glglifetech.com), essentially a Chinese company but headquartered in Vancouver, is another world leader in stevia production and marketing. In addition to pursuing North American customers, the company established a joint venture called ANOC in China that will make its own natural and zero-calorie food and beverage products using stevia extracts.

The natural sweetener now has several variants, as well as a cottage industry of flavor enhancers meant to deal with its sometimes bitter off-notes.

"One of the most requested PureCircle products is a new exclusive stevia byproduct, SG95," says Brent Laffey, global product manager for Premium Ingredients. PureCircle turned over the ingredient's U.S. marketing last September to Premium Ingredients. "There are still many challenges involving flavor development with stevia, but we're finding that specifically with PureCircle SG95, we can replace up to 50 percent of the sugar in a formula without noticeable detection."

Blue California also produces a highly purified stevia sweetener under the name Good&Sweet. "It's the highest purity reb-A in the market," claims Cecilia McCollum.

While other leading stevia sweeteners contain 95 and 97 percent of the key rebaudioside-A derivative of the stevia plant, Good&Sweet can be sourced as high as 99 percent.

"Promising excellent taste with a new sweetener and not delivering on that promise proved to be a costly mistake for a few major companies in 2009," McCollum reflects. "Consumer rejection of these products affected consumer acceptance of stevia as an excellent natural sweetener."

McCollum also hints that Blue California is developing natural sweeteners from other "all-natural, edible sources, and will announce important information about these new natural sweeteners soon."

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