Healthy beverage evolution: Have we come full circle?

By Cari Price, Corporate Development Chef, Food IQ

In the beginning there was only one beverage, water — abundant, refreshing, and nourshing — providing the body with everything it needed for fluid replenishment. Next, along with the development of agriculture, came milk, followed by beer, wine, coffee, and tea. All consumed for taste and pleasure as much as for the fluids they provided. Today, we have an enormous variety of beverages including soft drinks, sports and energy drinks, lemonades, juices, smoothies, and variations of the aforementioned. This abundance of choice in the beverage category suits the American sweet tooth, but most often comes with a hefty dose of calories that adds to the waistline.

Along with the rise in American obesity, consumers began to realize that calories consumed in liquid format add up quickly. For example, tea and coffee may be calorie-free—even bursting with antioxidants and flavonoids that help protect our bodies from disease—but with the addition of cream, sugar, whipped cream and flavored syrups, these naturally beneficial beverages are transformed into calorie-rich indulgences.

Decades ago, some consumers began the switch from full-calorie sweetened beverages such as sodas and lemonades to diet, light, and zero-calorie versions. This calorie-saving switch was made possible with the introduction of calorie-free sweeteners such as aspartame, saccharin, sucralose and, newest to the market, stevia. Most consumers have been satisfied with these reduced or no-calorie beverages (after acclimating themselves to the sometimes apparent artificial aftertaste), because it enabled them to continue drinking large amounts of flavorful and satisfying beverages without the excess calories. Although recently, consumers have started to question the healthfulness of non-caloric artificial sweeteners, even at zero calories.

All-natural

The trend that has most recently emerged in response to consumers’ fear of artificial sweeteners, is the use of real or unrefined sweetening ingredients such as cane sugar, raw sugar, agave nectar, and more. Wendy’s All-Natural Lemonade wears the claim of good old-fashion lemonade made with real sugar cane, and Roam Artisan Burgers' house-made sodas boast that they are lightly sweetened with agave nectar in flavors like Prickly Pear, Caramelized Pineapple and Blood Orange. These two examples illustrate the trend of higher quality, less-refined, real sweeteners as opposed to the high fructose corn syrup and no-calorie artificial sweeteners used in leading beverage products.

In fact, skinny cocktails or better-for-you alcoholic beverages are even popping up at large chains such McCormick & Schmick’s. Their margaritas have been lightened up with agave nectar—a natural sweetener that claims to have a lower glycemic index and sweeter taste as compared to sugar, therefore requiring smaller quantities. This new back-to-real trend in sweeteners is an important healthier beverage trend that is still being explored. It’s also top-of-mind for consumers at the moment, encouraging operators to offer a variety of sweeteners to accommodate guests.

Overall, in the beverage arena, consumers are beginning to understand that there is more to consider than calorie-count alone when selecting a better-for-you beverage. Taste and quality of ingredients are quickly becoming higher priorities. According to Mintel Menu Insights, smoothie concepts also are taking notice, and marketing the quality and healthfulness of their ingredients—both to differentiate their product from the sweet, dessert—like versions that exist at fast food chains, and also to prove that fresh, healthy drinks are readily available in smoothie settings. Jamba Juice is a great example, as they have continued to add more fresh fruit and vegetable blends to their menu and have plans to create new juice bar concepts in major metropolitan areas.

Frugality and a return to real, natural ingredients are leading us back to high-quality tea, coffee, sodas, and lemonade offerings that deliver the authentic flavor we remember from our past. It is interesting, though, that as consumers are faced with a list of possible beverage options at restaurants, more diners are opting for plain water—not sparkling water, flavored water or even bottled water.

“Over the past five years, tap water has been one of the fastest growing beverages in American restaurants, representing 10% of the 50 billion beverage servings ordered,” according to the market research company NPD Group.

Obviously, water will always remain a necessity.

While it seems we have come full circle, don’t stop exploring new options in healthy beverages. When considering your beverage menu, keep in mind that consumers are seeking out the least-processed, best-tasting and most-nutritious beverages they can get. And there are a wide variety of beverage occasions that include replenishing, recharging, relaxing, and indulging. The healthy beverage standards may be high, but remember, so is the demand.

Read more about food and beverage trends.

* Cari Price is corporate development chef at Food IQ. Her background in nutrition, and experience in food marketing and the restaurant industry, gives her clients a unique advantage in the development of strategically relevant menu ideas.

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