Innovation & Trends

The fight for functional beverages success

The alluring promise of functional beverages to deliver tasty refreshment plus health benefits has always been strong – going back decades to the likes of Gatorade and Red Bull and centuries in the case of tea and coffee or even Coca-Cola. As then, botanicals continue to play a big part in functional drinks. 

The contemporary functional drinks market that includes nootropics, energy drinks, immunity drinks and more is fast-growing and fast-moving – flush with start-ups and novelty and interesting propositions – some of which have gained market traction while others have fallen into obscurity or into the functional beverage bin.

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"The challenge of delivering a product that both tastes good and delivers a feel-the-benefit effect, and is convenient, has been a major barrier to success in this category,” opined healthy food industry expert Julian Mellentin in a recent missive about nootropics. “If you choose ingredients such as cordyceps mushrooms or tulsi, you have a major challenge of low consumer familiarity.” 


This may be true but caffeine and L-theanine-rich botanicals including coffee and tea forms, along with more recognisable adaptogens like ginseng and ashwagandha and other nutrients like B vitamins and minerals are meeting the challenge and driving a huge market regardless.

The Coronavirus pandemic is having a mixed effect on all this. While it has intensified people’s interest in immunity and wellness-supporting nutritional interventions of the kind functional beverages offer, it has also clamped many purse strings – and functional drinks are often premium priced beverages.


“The number of people losing their jobs, being furloughed or working shorter hours due to COVID-19 has led to a reduction of drinking occasions,” analyst Mintel noted in a just-published report on sports and energy drinks in Germany.

“Additionally, the pandemic is leading to higher price sensitivity as consumers cut back spending on non-essential goods, including sports and energy drinks.”


Despite these challenges market watchers pin the global functional beverages market north of $100 billion right now, with Mordor Intelligence predicting it will fizz past $200bn by 2024.


Functional beverages: ‘beverages that do something to me’

Essentially for every drink category there exist functional versions. Consider:


  • Energy drinks
  • Sports drinks
  • Juices
  • Waters
  • Sports proteins
  • Meal replacements
  • Yogurt drinks
  • Carbonated drinks
  • Shots
  • Cold-brew coffee
  • RTD tea
  • Dairy
  • Dairy alternatives
  • Alcohol-free
  • Smoothies
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It’s blatantly a broad church catering to broad sections of the population. Part of the reason for functional beverage success is a wider turning away from traditional carbonated and juice drinks which are often viewed as being unhealthy for body and planet alike. It’s not say they have been cancelled by everyone, but large-scale reduction has occurred. (E.g. Coca-Cola sales were down 6.1% in Q4 2019.)

People want more. They know more about their health and how to optimise it; about the planet’s health. They want clean label. They care about ingredient provenance. And it’s not just Millennials and Gen Zers. It’s all ages from the very young to the very old. Not everyone is invested in these ideas but many are, and the percentage is mounting.

A 2018 Hartman Group report found 73% of Millennials always have a beverage on hand which might be expected, but that 63% of Gen Xers and 58% of Baby Boomers carried portable drinks, driven by busy lives, a relaxation of traditional meal occasions and greater concerns about health and wellness. The report noted a contemporary mindset where functional beverages can “help me be the best that I can be”, not to mention “feeling good about myself.”  Almost half of those polled by Hartman said it was important “that my beverages do something for me” like stimulation or relaxation or stomach settling or just providing a nutrient boost for overall wellness. 

Under the influence

When such mindsets can gain immediate expression via vast social media audiences with in some cases heavily influential links to beverage brands; with hashtagged ingredients and health benefits and environmental causes, the complex interplay around personalised nutrition, product consumption and brand narratives and performance emerges.

Brands can only engage with the info-loops percolating around them, play in the currents of opinion and taste. Silence is not an option. Brand narratives with integrity are everything; misleading advertising, failed promises and low-quality products devastating to a brand’s longevity and success – as those consigned to the functional beverage poubelle have found out.

Feeling it 

You only have to scrutinise the offerings in beverage outlets like supermarkets and convenience stores, cafés and online retailers to see the shift away from traditional beverages from the likes of Big Soda, Big Water and Big Juice. It is perhaps no surprise the Bigs are very interested in the Smalls in this environment. 

And while some of these new entrants may be dodgy on dosage and/or light on product-specific clinical data, many are not. That was a problem many functional beverages experienced in the past: aside from energy drinks, consumers often found they couldn’t ‘feel the benefit’.

See Coca-Cola Minute Maid orange juice fortified with science-backed cholesterol-lowering plant sterols as a classic example of that. Same price, taste and branding as regular Minute Maid OJ but despite a huge launch and marketing effort in the mid-2000s it never took off; the benefit never really felt, not immediately enough anyway.
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sources & credits : Red Bull / Recess

Today’s functional beverage benefits all typically lean to a more immediate benefit: 


  • cognitive function-focused nootropics (especially popular in the increasingly massive e-sports world along with office workers)
  • relaxation
  • gut health
  • alcoholic beverage substitution/nightlife
  • energy
  • skin health
  • weight management
  • sports nutrition

The nutrient list lined up to deliver these benefits is quite exhaustive and includes panax ginseng, red sage, mushroom extracts, L-theanine, L-tyrosine, prebiotics and probiotics, ginger, caffeine, collagen, cinnamon, barley, almond, oat, quinoa, ashwagandha, kava, yerba mate, grape seed extract, turmeric, schisandra, cactus, kombucha, guarana, coconut, stevia, spirulina, liquorice, elderberry, pea, flax, CBD, chamomile, bilberry and valerian. Not to mention omega-3s and vitamins and minerals.


Consumers might not have heard of them all but overall knowledge of botanicals is growing as consumers seek more knowledge about products that may keep them healthy and out of costly public healthcare systems. Many governments support this.


Adaptogens like ginseng and schisandra and some mushroom extracts have centuries of use in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Ayurvedic herbal medicine as supplements but advances in extraction and formulation mean these potent botanicals are now present in beverages, in functional beverages.


So what‘s hot then, out there where the prodegradant concentrates (PDCs)-imbued plastic bottles and recycled glass bottles meet the refrigerated shelves, display cases and online catalogues?

Nootropics: ‘rocket fuel for your brain’?

Interventions to boost cognitive health – named nootropics by two Belgian scientists in the 1960s (including drugs) – may be the most interesting and fast-growing functional beverages category. 

Analysts predict the nootropic beverages market will be worth something in the vicinity of $6bn by 2024 from a current level between $2-3bn and growing at 10%.

An International Food Information Council (IFIC) survey of Americans found a third seek out memory, focus and cognition benefits from foods and drinks they buy.

Getting your nootropic e-game on


Nootropics are massively popular among workers – especially office workers – and the e-gaming scene where drinks like Bang, Gamer Fuel, A Shot of Genius, Amino Energy, GFuel and A-Shoc are popular. Creatine-infused Bang sales tripled from around $300m to over $1bn in the past 12 months alone.


And gamers are not just juveniles and university students. Over a third of gamers are over 34 and almost half of all gamers are themselves parents.

Typical benefits sought by e-gamers include: 


  • Better reflex and reaction time
  • Think and learn faster
  • Reduce physical pain and anxiety
  • More energy – prevent mental and physical fatigue
  • Superior vision
  • Heightened focus

Gamers like to customise their own ‘nootropic gaming stack’ which could include functional beverages and other supplements providing nutrients like MCTs, DHA omega-3, ginseng, L-Theanine, L-Tyrosine, phosphatidylserine (PS), pine bark extract, rhodiola and B vitamins.
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sources & credits : Koios / Recess

Nootropic drinks like ‘Doctor designed’ Mental Mojo promise “rocket fuel for your brain” based on a blend including vinpocetine, phosphatidylserine, L-carnitine and L-tyrosine. The Arizona-based firm says it has a patent pending for its formulation. 


Koios in Colorado also goes with the “Rocket fuel for your brain and body” line to describe ingredients in its multi-flavour ‘brain support’ organic, carbonated canned beverages. It says its formulas are “backed by science and clinical studies” with cognitive benefits linked to Lion’s mane mushrooms (Hericium Erinaceus) along with green tea, the choline Alpha-GPC, amino acids and medium chain triglycerides (MCTs).


Physical benefits like increased endurance are attributed to the adaptogen Ciwuija (Eleutherococcus senticosus) long used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and sometimes colloquially if imprecisely called Siberian ginseng.


UK firm Brite – founded two years ago by a professional swimmer and a chemical engineer – is another operation that makes much of its scientific credentials, boasting its Liquid Focus drinks are, “Based on research by leading neuroscientists, made with nature's superfoods.”


The science is however generic to the key ingredients here: caffeine and L-theanine sourced from organic matcha, guarana and guayusa and which the firm says delivers ‘better focus and productivity’.


How much science?


Ārepa in New Zealand offers a patented blackcurrant extract, pine bark extract and L-theanine based ‘Nootropic Brain Drink’ its front-of-bottle label states is ‘For Mental Clarity’.  In a section about the science backing the product, Ārepa states, “We operate at the nexus between nature, neuroscience and food-technology.” 


It has a clinical trial underway at the School of Psychology at the University of Auckland assessing neurocognitive performance and brain wave activity via EEG brainwave analysis for acute and chronic consumption of Ārepa.


Compare that with another American company, Neuro, which offers a suite of nootropic beverages such as neuroSleep, neuroBliss, neuroGasm that mix herbal extracts like chamomile, blueberry, pomegranate and goji with vitamins and minerals and nutrients like 5-Hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP), caffeine and L-carnitine.


The LA-based firm makes little reference to clinical data, preferring celebrity endorsements from the likes of Paris Hilton and Elton John.

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sources & credits : TruBrain / Arepa

Also in California, TruBrain, is another outfit whose shot formulation has been guided by neuroscientists, this time from UCLA. “Our products are nootropics blended to increase your verbal fluency, avoid distractions and boost mental output.”  Caffeine and L-theanine are dominant in the blend along with uridine, centrophenoxine, citicoline and L-carnitine. 


Explaining why such blends are more efficacious than caffeine alone, TruBrain states in its science section: “Caffeine is a blunt instrument to help you be more alert, but does not guide you into an ideal focused state. TruBrain’s approach is to directly support your attention system with the nutrients it naturally metabolizes.”


Like Ārepa, TruBrain references EEG brainwave analysis in clinical trials to demonstrate its shot drinks “boost high alpha brain waves”.


Relaxation


A smaller segment, relaxation drinks were worth about $330m globally in 2018 according to Research and Markets. Products in this category offer calm in an increasingly busy and chaotic world, often tapping botanicals to deliver benefits.


US-based Recess markets itself as an ‘antidote to modern times’ and claims to solve the problem of having “too many tabs open in our browsers and in our brains.” The canned beverage in multiple flavours contains hemp, American ginseng, L-theanine and lemon balm. While not referencing any proprietary science its website states, “hemp and adaptogens interact with our endocannabinoid system to help our body maintain equilibrium and homeostasis.”


Som Sleep claims to be ‘your night drink’ to be imbibed 30 minutes before bedtime. The US-based beverage firm says its wares are ‘backed by science’; its ‘Som Stack’ featuring melatonin, magnesium, L-theanine, vitamin B6 and GABA designed to aid slumber by supporting bodily sleep cycles and relaxing the mind.

Gut health/Immunity


Functional beverages promoting digestive and immune health frequently contain probiotics and prebiotics but can also bear botanicals like Pervida which is based on punicic acid-rich pomegranate seed oil.


Virginia-based Pervida emphasises its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant content and gut and immune system support, which it claims is backed by 10 years of ‘peer-reviewed research’.


8-year-old Suja is another US firm that has a range of organic kombucha, juice and shot drinks infused with probiotics, botanicals and other nutrients some of which are aimed at the immunity/digestion market.


The firm, which began life delivering products around San Francisco on a skateboard, utilises nutrients including ginger, apple cider vinegar, acerola cherry, annatto and L-theanine.


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sources & credits : Suja / Pervida

Energy drinks


Then of course there is energy – the behemoth of functional beverages at about $50bn globally (half of the whole category) and set to hit $85bn in 2025 according to Grand View Research (GVR).


The main players in this category like Red Bull, Monster, Rockstar and 5-Hour Energy tend to feature similar formulations based around varying doses and derivatives of caffeine, taurine and B vitamins which have made energy drinks and shots such a blockbuster ‘feel the benefit’ category for more than two decades.


But perhaps the more interesting aspect of this segment is natural and organic, which GVR expects to surge to 40% of category sales in 2025 – about $34bn. 


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sources & credits : Rebbl / BumbleZest

Brands like Proper Wild Clean All Day Energy Shots are organic green tea-based with 180mg of L-theanine and mic energy with nootropic claims. 


Toro Matcha Sparkling Ginger combines organic ginger and lemon juices with organic Japanese matcha and contains only 60mg of caffeine per 355ml can. 


Vital Proteins Collagen Energy Shots uses coffee fruit extract to deliver caffeine and adds hyaluronic acid for skin benefits. 


Sound Sparkling Organic Yerba Maté is a good example of the expanding Yerba Maté market containing 70mg of caffeine in a 355ml bottle. 


Another is UK-based BumbleZest which offers a ‘fuel + focus’ Yerba Maté drink with 80mg caffeine in a 250ml can along with green coffee and matcha. 


BumbleZest has other functional beverages including ‘propel + protect’ Matcha Moringa Ginseng 60ml shot drink. 

Others include Rebbl whose wide selection of organic drinks include a Fair Trade cold-brew coffee as well as ashwagandha and reishi and no cane sugar. Its product information page notes its ashwagandha is grown in the northern Indian state of Rajasthan where there are ‘Economic opportunities for women’ and activities help ‘Fund local schools and medical facilities’. 

The list goes on… 

We could go on really – infinitely really. The plant and protein waters. Sports drinks. The meal substitute drinks like NUUT, Huel and Soylent. The rapid rise of CBD and hemp drinks like Dirty Lemon, Lumen, Creating Better Days and Koi among an upstart cast of risk-taking formultors infiltrating all drink categories from relaxation to beauty-from-within shots aimed at skin health to nootropics and sports drinks. Cold-pressed coffee like Kickback. Fermented beverages like kombucha and kefir. We could go on. 

PART 2 on beverages coming soon.