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Beating the beverage buzz: analyzing healthy drink trends

Healthy drinks are hitting supermarket shelves, sports stores and spa boutiques alike. Marketing companies are spinning out narratives that accentuate what seems like every possible drink’s benefits for the body or mind or both. But which drinks have real fizz? And which just fall flat? Let’s take a brief look at the trend’s impact and some of its healthier, and a few toxic, creations.

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Healthy has always been a marketing buzzword. Ever since the first cola bottles hit the streets, beverages have capitalized on our desire for self-improvement. The trend has only accelerated in the 21st century as health and wellness culture took off and gave functional beverages wings, and mass-market appeal. From overrated health wines by Cameron Diaz to innovative health products from mushroom experts like Rritual, we take a look at the trends’ products and value.

Some, however, have come under fire for overselling their health benefits, whilst others are quietly (or loudly) working to improve lives. Whatever the verdict on an individual product of the trend, it is undeniably an economically significant one, and thus worthy of attention. 

Just how deep a draught are we taking?

Health drinks are no longer remote fountains of youth located on far-off shores, but readily available at nearly every store, and plenty of other places too. From smoothie bars to the counter of your nearest gym, you can find beverages marketed at whatever health niche you fit in. No list of 2020 food or beverage trends could be complete without mentioning them at least once (or three times). 

But the trends are just the tip of the iceberg; the growing mass appeal has given the phenomenon distinct market heft. It is also hardly new.

The ‘functional’ beverage industries affection for health and wellness claims and marketing was already big a decade ago and growing. At the time it was estimated at almost half of the non alcoholic beverage market. Today? Its clout is significant, capping in at an estimated 129 billion dollars.

So the money is significant, but what exactly are we talking about?

The twin trends driving healthy beverage growth

You can break down the forces behind the markets’ steady flow towards ‘healthy’ drinks into two major categories, and a third hybrid path. Each of which captures an underlying theme in the current health and wellness zeitgeist. Let us take a brief overview of each before analyzing them in some depth with examples.

The first is pretty straightforward: people are searching for healthier versions of the drinks they love. Whether to assuage guilt, or truly improve their health, customers are turning towards healthier versions of their favorite drinks. From alcoholic beverages to sodas, the trend is all about taking something ‘unhealthy’ and making it ‘healthy’.

The second is more of a producer-driven trend, as they come up with a concept or innovation to try and reach customers. Usually, they find a healthy ingredient or idea and create a beverage based delivery system for it. From herbal infusions to vitamin-packed smoothies, the diverse trend is all about taking something healthy and making it fun, easy, or tasty to consume. 

And then, of course, there is the hybrid path, a mix of the two. The creation of a healthier version of an existing beverage by adding in some dosage of healthy ingredients. While it can take advantage of both instincts, developers or marketers have to walk a fine line to avoid the pitfalls of both, but stand to gain the most if they succeed. 

Cheers to your health: repackaging for health

The first of the trends is impossible to miss: It seems like every major beverage (and food) brand is angling for ways to target health-conscious consumers. From the biggest conglomerate (Coca-Cola) to the marginal beer breweries, these companies know they need to shake things up. They need to offer an alternative to consumers who enjoy their products but might be turned off by the negative press. 

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And by negative press, we mean the scientific evidence that sodas and plenty of other favorites (from milks to juices) are bad for us. Driven perhaps more accurately by the growing awareness of this research, and acceptance of it as fact. Up to and including government regulation to discourage our overconsumption of them. The age of the soda pop is over, and even alcohol consumption is on the decline (despite COVID-19s best efforts). 

So companies are turning to minor innovation and major marketing strategies to keep their consumers happy, and their products on the shelves. Not all with great success, while Coke-Zero has massively taken off, few still remember the short-lived Coca-Cola Life that briefly graced supermarket shelves. But they have certainly kept the major players in the game, and helped slow, or even reverse, their inevitable decline. 

But when it comes down to it, they are not really healthy drinks, merely a less unhealthy version of an existing one. While this ties in nicely to the general trend, their marketing is hardly fulfilling any genuine needs, niche or otherwise, and sometimes the blowback is harsh. Such as when Cameron Diaz’s Aveline wine brand started to market their wine as ‘clean’. The blatant attempt to market towards health conscious wine drinkers earned them the ire of the industry, and their disdain, for suggesting that wine was somehow dirty or unhealthy. 

So half the trend isn’t bringing anything new to the table yet still make billions, what about those who are?

Brewing with innovation: healthy ingredients reborn

A more creative approach to the health beverage industry involves finding healthy ingredients, already known and respected, and getting them to consumers in a palatable form. Thus were born the smoothie bars, juice joints and tea shops that pepper the wealthy coasts or gentrified city centers. 

Everyone’s grandmother knows a healthy and natural remedy for one thing or another, but only recently have the masses begun to take a serious interest in them. Infuse the ‘all natural’ and green approach with a serious dose of science and even medical research to satisfy even the sceptics. Problem is, most of them don’t taste great. 

The adaptogen Ashwagandha is a great example. A remedy for stress passed down in ayurvedic traditions of India; its name is literally a combination of the sanskrit words for horse and smell. Though not because as one website boldly claims “it is taken to mean that this herb may impart the vigor and strength of a stallion.” Yet it is a popular ingredient for its adaptogenic qualities, so how have beverage innovators gotten around the taste?

Combine it with tastier ingredients (and probably some sugar) and repackage the whole thing as both healthy and delicious. Hence the teas and smoothies, a sprinkling of your favorite healthy ingredients with traditional, cultural or scientific backing, and you have the recipe for success. Or at least, in theory. 

The difficulty comes at scale; many of these innovators worked out of small shops where client contact and atmosphere were key to their reputation and pricing. Mass appeal is still missing; too often the ingredients are too unknown, or the combinations too strange for widespread success. Though some ‘alchemist’ companies who started out that way have made it past the infancy stage, among other things by moving into the make-up sector. 

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So is there real potential in this trend, or will healthy beverage money still end up mostly in the pockets of the drink giants?

Mixing for maximum success

There are a few promising companies out there, like Rritual, trying to do, well, both. Bringing us healthy ingredients to bolster our performance or immune system but, in a large scale form, we are already accustomed to. All the health innovation, and genuine added value, but with scaling and mass appeal potential. 

FourSigmatic was one of the first of these functional beverage innovators, bringing the health-rich superfood of mushrooms to coffees, a drink widely appreciated by all. Yet they have encountered some of the same growth problems of their herbal predecessors, bringing a pre-packaged and already mixed coffee to market for quite a hefty price can be a barrier to entry. 

One similar approach coming out of 2020 we find ever more promising is the idea of a beverage additive. A new company to the mushroom adaptogen field, Rritual, has crafted ‘elixirs’ that bring all the functional benefits of mushrooms and other adaptogens to whatever coffee or tea the customer is already drinking. This makes the price (and cost) per serving far lower than it would for pre-packaged and brewed coffee or smoothies. 

A lower marginal cost to the consumer for all the benefits seems like a good deal. With the added advantage of getting to dose and mix the health supplement with their own favorite beverages, there is significant potential customer appeal. 

So what does the future hold for healthy drinking?

Only time will tell how well Rritual, in particular, will do. But it seems clear that their strategy has significant market potential. A compromise between the two leading trends in the health and wellness world; making something we love actually healthier, and making the healthy options out there more accessible. 

That said, the market is continually evolving, and many companies are positioning themselves for a piece of the growing pie. Ultimately, the real fate of the heathy beverage industry will be up to the consumers to taste test the many options, and settle on those which bring the greatest combination of enjoyment and functional benefits.

(Featured image by StockSnap via Pixabay)

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Anthony Donaghue writes about science and technology. Keeping abreast of the latest tech developments in various sectors, he has a keen interest on startups, especially inside and outside of Silicon Valley. From time to time, he also covers agritech and biotech, as well as consumer electronics, IT, AI, and fintech, among others. He has also written about IPOs, cannabis, and investing.