CHICAGO – A survey of 2,005 Americans conducted by OnePoll on behalf of Celestial Seasonings, a business of The Hain Celestial Group Inc., Lake Success, NY, identified the most popular beverages consumed by adult Americans on a daily basis.

Water — with or without carbonation, and maybe flavor as an ingredient, but not much more — led the way with 65% of consumers making it their beverage of choice. Coffee (58%) and tea (30%), in the many forms available, e.g., hot, iced, sweetened, latte, enriched, functional, etc., followed. Juice came in fourth (28%) and soda fifth, with 24% of consumers choosing this once widely popular sweetened carbonated drink.

While The Hain Celestial Group Inc. did not participate in Natural Products Expo West held March 8-12 in Anaheim, Calif., there were plenty of beverage startups and small brands exhibiting to support the survey results. Of the 2,857 registered exhibitors at Natural Products Expo West, 306 focused on beverage innovation. Many were first-time exhibitors. Plant-sourced ingredients are fueling the innovation in each of the five beverage categories captured in the survey, as well as dairy alternatives.


Beverages as carriers of health

Beverages have long been a carrier for homeopathic remedies to treat everything from anxiety to forgetfulness to sleep deprivation. The pandemic, however, accelerated awareness among consumers, many of whom decided to take personal health into their own hands. Beverages are being formulated with natural ingredients with known benefits, such as botanicals like mint, rosemary and thyme, as well as roots and barks (e.g., turmeric, cinnamon and ginger). Some plants and trees are direct sources of botanical ingredients, including aloe vera, coconut tree and coffee cherries. Edible flowers, such as rose, chamomile and hibiscus, are also common sources.

Some botanicals are described as adaptogens. These are a class of herbs, mushrooms and minerals known to boost the immune system and help the body fight the effects of stress. The plant-based compounds have been used in Chinese and Ayurvedic healing traditions. Ginseng, for example, is said to regulate the body’s response to physical or mental stress.

There also are nootropics, which is a term with the Greek translation of “toward the mind” and refers to compounds that directly or indirectly influence cognitive function. Examples include ashwagandha, citicoline and green tea extract.

With these ingredients, proper dosing is necessary for the consumer to reap any purported benefits, which is why most applications are sold as individual servings in order to guarantee a specified amount of the compound. Beverages are the most common delivery vehicle, providing the ingredients properly dissolve and are dispersed into a homogenous fluid.

During the State of Natural and Organic Keynote session at Expo West, Carlotta Mast, senior vice president of New Hope Network, Boulder, Colo., cited data that functional foods and beverages comprised 31% of the $274 billion natural and organic industry in 2021. The functional sector grew 8.3% in 2021, with ingredients such as mushrooms, adaptogens and electrolytes fueling innovation in beverages in order to better address consumers’ changing priorities since the onset of the pandemic.

“We expect the boost to remain for at least the next four or five years, because consumers have changed,” Mast said. “They’re paying more attention to their health and wellness. They’re investigating new brands. This is creating longer-term opportunity for this industry.”

Wellness products are where the growth is in the food and beverage industry, said Kathryn Peters, executive vice president of business development for the marketing data company SPINS, Chicago. She provided a valuation of $596 billion for conventional products with a growth rate of 0.6% for the 52 weeks ended Jan. 23, 2022. Natural products, on the other hand, are valued at $80 billion (+4%) and specialty/wellness products at $117 billion (+3.6%).

“Conventional products, while very large, is not where growth is,” Peters said. “Wellness products have about 25% share of dollar volume but 68% of share of dollar growth.”

The top growth categories were snacks, cookies and ready-to-drink beverages. SPINS data showed that 66% of consumers are choosing products based on their health needs. Millennials are the largest demographic, with 58% following particular lifestyle choices while all Americans are at 43%.


Innovation on display

Twrl Milk Tea made its debut at Expo West. Made with pea milk and organic tea, the 7.5-oz canned beverages contain less than 50 calories and 7 grams of sugar. Varieties are original black, Hojicha roasted green and jasmine. It is the first of its kind on the market, said Olivia Chen, who founded the San Francisco-based company with Pauline Ang less than two years ago.

“Ultra-climate friendly pea milk makes milk tea more accessible to those with lactose intolerance and dietary restrictions,” Chen said. “In addition, the biodynamically grown tea leaves pack a flavor punch, shining through without astringency. We tried over 100 iterations before settling on the current formula.”

Ang said: “We locked in the flavor with nitro-infused technology. Shelf-stable tea beverages lose their flavor as delicate tea leaves are heated during the canning process. We experimented with our recipes and canning method until we found a combination that delivered flavorful, creamy milk tea without using additional fats or creamers.”

On the coffee side, Taika, San Francisco, added a mocha latte variety to its line of ready-to-drink, adaptogen-infused beverages that are formulated to keep consumers calm, focused and clear. The beverages use either oats or macadamias as the base.

Pop & Bottle, San Francisco, has the tagline of “a new way to latte.” The company is introducing organic shelf-stable coffee and tea lattes made with either oats or almonds. One example is an immune-boosting, stress-reducing matcha latte made with oats and matcha. There’s a hint of sweetness from dates, and the drink is boosted with functional mushrooms.

Lifeway Foods Inc., Niles, Ill., sampled its Lifeway MSHRM Oat line. The adaptogenic functional mushroom beverages are the latest addition to the company’s portfolio of cultured oat beverages. The shot-style drinks contain 10 live and active probiotic cultures, plus beta-glucans, which have been linked to heart health. The three flavor combinations are reishi mushroom and vanilla; adaptogenic mushrooms and aronia berry; and lion’s mane mushroom and L-theanine from green tea, turmeric and ginger.

“The release of our Lifeway MSHRM Oat comes at a time when consumers are seeking out innovative, functional beverages that taste great and include ingredients at the forefront of health research,” said Julie Smolyansky, chief executive officer. “With so much focus on the mental health crisis and the promising research around functional mushroom ingredients, I’m proud to offer these wellness options for everyone to enjoy and add to their self-care toolkits.”

Garden of Flavor markets a range of cold-pressed juices. The brand’s newest offering is Pear Reishi Energy Elixir, which includes lion’s mane and chaga mushrooms. Both are known to support brain health, promote better sleep and help the body adapt to stress. The ingredients, along with reishi, another mushroom, are blended with ingredients like organic pear juice, lemon juice, guayusa and probiotic cultures to help support mental clarity and energy levels even further.


Other noteworthy launches

Free Rain, New York, developed a beverage that contains maca root to nourish libido, enhance sexual energy and support hormonal balance.

U Calming Co., San Diego, debuted calming tonics that incorporate kava, ashwagandha, L-theanine, chamomile and lemon balm to promote relaxation.

Seattle-based Dry Soda Co., launched Botanical Bubbly Reserve, an alcohol-free sparkling beverage in lavender and spiced pear flavors.

Roar Organic, Huntington, NY, revamped its organic Complete Hydration Beverage line, which is infused with not only electrolytes, but also fortified with 100% daily value of immunity-linked vitamins B5, B6 and B12 and antioxidants A, C and E.

Kayco Beyond debuted Wonder Lemon, a 100% organic cold-pressed juice with zero added sugar. Lemon juice, the primary fruit in the beverages, is rich in vitamins A and C, as well as calcium, potassium and beta-carotene, positioning lemon as being helpful for immunity, fatigue and mood. The drink comes in three flavors: lemon basil jalapeño, lemon ginger and lemon mint, each made with five to six ingredients, with less than 110 calories per bottle and formulated with fruits and vegetables.

“Lemon has been a popular drink flavor forever, but most people don’t realize how much benefit lemons actually provide,” said Laura Morris, associate marketing director at Kayco Brands. “Unlike many other fruits, a lot of people don’t want to just bite into a tart, sour lemon, so they just squeeze it into some water, losing a lot of the great flavor. That’s why we created Wonder Lemon, to give our customers those incredible health benefits while maintaining the full, delicious flavor of the lemon.”