Rg5 & Rk1

Trend sipping: Botanical blends, root juices and COVID bends

One thing that has been pretty obvious in beverage circles for a long time is that the reign of Big Soda, Big Juice and Big Water in a $1.6 trillion+ global category is in decline. Not over, but declining.

 Coca-Cola may remain the most purchased brand on the planet (seven billion purchasing occasions and 50% global household penetration in 2019 according to Kantar) but the market has been fragmenting for years and, COVID aside, all signs point to it continuing this way.

Although there has been a COVID-inspired uptick, global carbonated beverage sales have been falling for 15 consecutive years.

BOTANICALS ARE ON FIRE RIGHT NOW

In this climate, clean-sourced botanicals are playing a key role in the ever-expanding new breed of beverages from that include:

  • Fermented drinks
  • Seltzers
  • Cold brews
  • Root juices
  • Low/no-alcohol beverages
  • Flavored waters
  • Plant-based dairy alternatives
  • Botanical shots

Founder and president of Healthy Brand Builders, Jim Tonkin, expects botanicals use to continue expanding in multiple beverage categories.

“Botanicals and original/organic ingredients are on fire right now; especially those of efficacious dosage, or even long term anecdotal confirmation like gingko biloba and ginseng and turmeric which are ubiquitous in beverages today,” the Arizona-based beverage industry veteran says. I see more and more of these adaptogens, botanicals, herbs, spices and the like continuing to dominate flavor profiles and additions to these functional beverage products.”

With that, a brand’s sustainable credentials and formulation journey story are increasingly up front and center. Innovation in taste and benefits and format and marketing is essential to secure market exposure and consumer buy-in but without a credible sustainability story, the chances of success are slim.

As Rachel Arthur, editor of global drinks industry publication, Beverage Daily observes: “Sustainability is something that’s going to continue to define 2021: but what we may see is increased wariness of ‘greenwashing’ and increased scrutiny of which claims really stand up and which projects really make a difference.”

PANDEMIC CONSEQUENCES

The impact of COVID-19 cannot be ignored. The Coronavirus pandemic’s threat to the financial and health security of so many households has slowed the industry swing from Big to Small – if only temporarily.

“Pre-pandemic, consumers wanted to search out new, unique drinks and brands and new experiences,” says Arthur. “But once the pandemic set in a number of companies noted a return to big brands – brands that consumers know and trust, brands that are predictable, and are easily recognizable when shopping online.”

“Meanwhile, companies of every size have been having to streamline operations, supply chains and their innovation pipeline to save money. That means they’re having to be more ruthless in what they keep and what they ditch.”

Tonkin agrees: “COVID has decreased and in many instances crushed retail opportunity for new brand placement and sales opportunity.”

It is difficult to gauge the long term effects of the pandemic on the global beverage market, but this kind of innovation and supply chain scrutiny is certainly provoking a rationalization in new product development – start-ups may be on the ascendency but around 60% of them still fail with two or three years and this kind of rationalization may be a positive thing in longer term beverage formulation in terms of less resources wasted in doomed projects.

The pandemic has also intensified what was already increasing consumer interest in health – a May 2020 survey of 23,000 consumes in 18 countries by FMCG Gurus found 80% intending to eat and drink more healthily because of COVID-19.

THE NICHE BEV-OLUTION

Pandemic aside (we can only try), all this typically start-up driven innovation has shattered the big beverage brand hegemony, broadened offerings and put the drinks industry – as with all industries – face-to-face with its consumers and their ever-evolving tastes and demands. It’s not just health food stores or niche retailers where you can find ‘alternative beverages’ – they’ve moved on to mainstream shelves; into mainstream minds.

Functional beverages are at the vanguard of the ‘bev-olution’ – a perfect storm where drink formulation advances have met with growing demand for health benefits in beverages – and benefits you can feel – to create growth far outpacing the regular beverage sector in sub-sectors like nootropics, energy and sleep support drinks. But beverage advances are not confined to those promoting particular health benefits and so the modern retail shelf will showcase seltzers to botanical shots to plant waters to CBD infusions to root juices. Diversification and category blurring are the name of the game and the big brands are not blind to these shifts and getting in on the action.

“Coca-Cola, for example, made a massive leap into coffee in acquiring Costa,” Arthur says. “It’s also moving into alcohol with its Topo Chico hard seltzer launch in the US; and it’s mixing coffee and cola with Coca-Cola Coffee.”

But Big buying Small does not always work out as Coke’s recently axed 2013 coconut water acquisition ZICO testifies to. Tonkin says small brands that think Big Beverage buy-outs will be their savior are “smoking crack”.

ROOT JUICES MAKE ROOM FOR BOTANICALS

Superfruit juices and smoothies have a near two decades presence, and root juices are proving a viable extension of that. Botanical root juices tap into a broader taste shift in many markets to more bitter beverages that has also fed the rise of sour vinegars, seltzers and kombucha.

“Consumers are increasingly turning their backs on sickly-sweet sodas and other sugary drinks: and are instead looking for different, more sophisticated taste profiles,” says Arthur.

But it’s not just the likes of carrots, beets and parsnips; drinks infused with botanicals such as ginseng and turmeric are beginning to move into this space.

“Ginseng has been around for a long time; it is a well-known ingredient that has lots of usage occasions and has been included in many supplements to date,” Tonkin says.

“I don’t see any reason, as long as supply chain verification is stern, for it not to continue growing in beverages.”

BOTALYS, with the benchmark panax ginseng supply chain traceability that comes from climate controlled, hydroponic vertical farming, mayenter this space with a cold-pressed ginseng root juice under development. Watch this space…

Cold brew being another stand out category that has grown up fast in recent years and is beginning to invite botanical infusions as barista-style coffee brands seek to engage coffee drinkers with new possibilities and bring new consumers into the fold.

FERMENTED MOVE FORWARD

In the fermented fridge the likes of kombucha, kefir and butter milk have all benefited from a healthy halo that tends to revolve around digestive health and immunity even if clinical data and approved health claims are sparse, although Tonkin says the absence of claims is not the biggest problem in the world.

“I think as long as the non-pharma or non-GRAS ingredients do NOT make structure-function claims like many have been guilty of for a long time, these botanicals will continue to prevail…so it is up to the brands to be legitimate and careful ‘selling’ their ingredients.”

They also benefit from the putsch to clean-label and often tout their natural and organic credentials and their ‘sophisticated’ flavor profile means they are attracting interest in the booming low/no alcohol world. Majors like Coca-Cola have invested in kombucha – see MOJO in Australia – and formulation and fermentation work has explored its prebiotic and probiotic potential along with botanical blends that have demonstrated elevated levels of key bioactives.

SELTZERS HARD AND SOFT

Hard alcoholic seltzers dominate but caffeine, CBD and botanical seltzers have made some ground in a rising category that has attracted the likes of Molson Coors, Constellation Brands, Heineken, Coca-Cola, Carlsberg and AB InBev.

Hard seltzers are typically infused with fruit extracts from berries, citrus and tropical fruits but are seeing some botanical infusions like green tea, while it is not uncommon to see the likes of CBD seltzers blended with botanicals like hibiscus, ginger and ginseng.

Tonkin: “Seltzers are on fire. Continued growth and given the decade long decline in carbonated soft drinks, this is a great way to still get carbonation to those who crave it, in a better-for-you iteration.”

It all points to a challenging and exciting future for the beverages sector, and one in which botanicals are set to be a key player.