Functional beverages have come a long way since 1965 when Gatorade hit the market as the first sports drink. When Red Bull came on the scene in the US in 1997, it’s stimulating mix of taurine and caffeine further fueled consumer thirst for functionality. The functional drink market has continued to evolve with innovative ingredients designed for almost every need state, such as energy, weight management, alertness, relaxation, muscle-building and immunity enhancement.
However, with the ongoing “clean label” trend, the functional beverage category has come under fire for its use of artificial ingredients and colors. Now the market is seeing an influx of natural functional beverages using novel plant-based or vegetable or fruit ingredients and natural colors to give consumers that same functional boost but with the health halo of having fewer and simpler ingredients.
Drinks like Solixir, an all-natural functional drink that uses herbal ingredients like ginger root and yerba mate leaves, and the natural Guru Energy Drink are bringing the all-natural trend into the functional drink market. Bai Antioxidant Infusions is another example as it’s made with a combination of coffeefruit with juices and natural colors and is marketed as a 100 percent natural antioxidant beverage.
Beverage companies have a variety of natural ingredients to source from, ranging from herbal ingredients like ginkgo or elderflower, to vitamins and minerals backed by clinical studies. And often beverage companies looking to go natural will also choose natural colors, flavors and sweeteners as well.
Ingredient company Beneo offers several naturally-derived functional ingredients increasingly used in beverages, such as its Palatinose carbohydrate, which is derived from sugar beet. Providing a balanced energy release, Palatinose is effective in sports drinks and energy drinks, according to Jens Böhm, Beneo marketing manager. The company also offers its prebiotic inulin and oligofructose fibers for digestive health and its Nutriz rice derivatives are gluten-free ingredients for non-dairy rice-based drinks, Bohm says.
Neuro Drinks is another enhanced drink brand marketed as healthy functionality as it boasts natural flavors and colors. Launched about four years ago, Neuro has varieties like Daily Immunity, Sleep, Sonic, Passion and Bliss designed to hit on three consumer demands — functionality, good taste and an all-natural, healthy platform, says Paul Nadel, president of Neuro Drinks.
Nadel attests that there are challenges to formulating natural functional drinks with an efficacious amount of nutraceuticals and yet still deliver a great-tasting product. Neuro Bliss, for instance, contains a combination of L-theanine, chamomile, alpha GPC and B vitamins to reduce stress with a light tropical citrus lychee flavor and without the use of artificial flavors or colors.
“When it comes to taste and the actual chemistry of developing these drinks, it is very challenging. To try to put these ingredients in liquid form and have the chemistry work so that they blend correctly and still have a good shelf life is part of the challenge. And these ingredients are expensive as we think it’s important to use ingredients that are clinically proven to work and we make sure we have the proper dosage. As functional drinks are premium-priced products, the consumer wants something that delivers on functionality,” Nadel says. “And, the last part of the development challenge is we make sure that these ingredients are sourced from credible, pre-qualified vendors.”
Many natural color and flavor manufacturers offer a wide range of sourcing options combined with the latest ingredient technology to help beverage companies overcome these unique formulation issues.
According to Christine Hess, key account technical manager at Wild Flavors, herbal ingredients are typically used in natural functional drinks, yet herbal ingredients can have undesirable off-flavors when used in ready-to-drink beverages.
“At Wild, we offer Resolver Technology that helps overcome those undesirable flavors. In addition, we offer de-flavored herbal extracts such as green coffee extract and green tea catechins,” Hess says.
Increasingly, many existing functional drinks are reformulating with natural colors and flavors to enhance their appeal to health-minded consumers. Bulbul Jain, technical manager in the beverage division at color manufacturer ROHA, says reformulating with natural colors raises many technical issues such as the vibrancy and intensity of the natural hue may not match synthetic colors. There also can be challenges with shelf life and light stability issues. Jain also notes that some beverage companies want natural colors that double as functional ingredients, such as turmeric, or an ingredient like hibiscus can be both a flavor as well as provide a natural red color.
Jody Renner-Nantz, global application scientist at color manufacturer D.D. Williamson, says beyond light stability and shelf life issues, there is usually a marked price difference between the synthetic FD&C colors and natural colors. And, there also can be interactions between naturally-derived colors and functional ingredients. For instance, the anthocyanins used to create a natural red hue can interact with high dosages of Vitamin C and cause the Vitamin C to degrade in a functional drink, she says.
“If a beverage company is doing a tropical beverage, they might want to pick a yellow hue, for example, as the Vitamin C would help to enhance the stability of that color,” she says. Proteins and amino acids also can interact with certain natural colors.
“Typically, we would ask beverage companies to send in their base so we know the target hue for the final product and then we can use that base without the color in it to add our naturally-derived colors and try to get a good match,” Renner-Nantz says. D.D. Williamson also offers technology expertise such as application testing and accelerated shelf life testing capabilities to develop the most effective natural color solutions.
Chr. Hansen also provides an expertise in natural color solutions with a focus on color stability, color match and cost efficiency. According to Ashlee Martin, scientist in the Natural Color Division at Chr. Hansen, the company has a natural colors global expertise center in Montpellier, France that specializes in natural color technology and innovation. Recently, Chr. Hansen launched its Ultra Stable Red natural colors, which are a range of bright and intense, vegetable-based colors with outstanding stability, the company says. The new stable red colors are based on new and unique anthocyanin blends combining stabilizing technology. Ellen Hemme, Chr. Hansen’s industry product manager in the Natural Color Division, says the Ultra Stable Red solutions appeal to beverage producers wanting to switch from synthetic red colors to natural or those currently using less stable natural color solutions.