The beverage world has changed significantly in recent years. Brightly coloured, sugary sodas are out, while functional drinks such as kombucha and immunity-boosting ginger shots are in. At least, that’s the verdict from Flavorman’s latest Beverage Trend Report, which analyses flavour and technological trends across the market.

According to the beverage developer, drinks preferences this year indicate a shift away from “Covid-19’s challenging years” towards a “future of simplicity, functionality, environmental consciousness and authenticity”.

The report adds that with new beverages hitting the shelves every day, “shoppers are shifting towards products with more natural components and colouring”. Whereas last year’s consumers “wanted bolder ingredients for nostalgic flavours with guilt-free indulgence”, this year “we’re seeing a shift to a more balanced, healthconscious trend”. Brands are eschewing artificial flavourings and colourings, replacing added sugars with natural fruit sugars, and developing drinks that marry flavour with functional benefits.

Flavorman isn’t the only one noticing this shift in the market, “70% of consumers are looking for functional benefits in their drinks, such as immune boosting benefits, energy, protein, et cetera,” says a spokesperson for the California-based brand wildwonder. “People don’t like empty calories these days. With gut health being the fastest growing health trend, we see a bigger demand for probiotics and prebiotics in delicious and convenient form factors such as beverages.”

Ian Hadley, commercial director of Remedy UK, adds that there’s a gap in the market for low-sugar energy drinks in particular. “The UK sports and energy drinks market size increased by more than 22% in 2022, however, the category is dominated by drinks featuring excessive sugar and artificial ingredients at a time when three quarters of the UK population are looking to reduce or avoid sugar in their diet and are becoming increasingly aware of the potential negative implications of artificial sweeteners,” he says.

The shift towards wellness

On the face of things, what people are drinking in any given year may not be all that illuminating. Fads come and go; consumer preferences can be fickle and we can’t necessarily derive a deeper meaning from every fluctuation in the market. That said, consumer preferences can often provide an interesting bellwether of social trends.

The real story here is one that’s been playing out for a while. That’s the continued shift towards ‘wellness’ – a diffuse concept that consumers are coming to understand in a nuanced and sophisticated way. According to McKinsey’s Future of Wellness Survey, conducted in 2020, 79% of respondents across six countries said they believed wellness is important, while 42% considered it a top priority. Those figures had risen significantly over the past two to three years in every market they researched.

That trend has continued post-Covid. According to Mintel’s The Future of Nutrition, Health and Wellness 2023 report, the pandemic has nudged consumers towards taking a more holistic approach to their health. This has led to more conscientious consumption, along with “a growing trend of using food as medicine to promote physical and mental well-being, as well as preventative health”.

That means that while countertrends have come and gone – Flavorman’s 2022 report talked about full-sugar beverages seeing a resurgence in the premium market – the general trajectory is clear; consumers are interested in healthy beverages that don’t compromise on taste, and are becoming more discerning about what healthy means, with artificial sweeteners and even heavy use of fruit sugars no longer passing muster.

To cite a few prominent examples, MOJU Drinks sells a range of ‘shots’ designed for various functional benefits – energy, immunity, gut health, for example – with no added sugar and a range of ‘punchy’ flavours. Dash Drinks eliminates ‘fake flavours’ with simple fruit-infused water, while Acti-Vit’s fruit-flavoured water is packed with supplemental vitamins. Nexba claims that its range of kombucha, energy drinks and nootropics have eliminated over seven-billion grams of sugar from global diets to date.

Then there’s wildwonder, which is greatly benefiting consumers’ gut health. Its founder and CEO, Rosa Li, was inspired by the healing drinks of her Chinese heritage, tonics filled with wild herbs and botanicals. Each can contains one-billion live probiotics and five-grams of prebiotic fibre, supported by functional herbs and fruits.

“Whereas last year’s consumers ‘wanted bolder ingredients for nostalgic flavours with guilt-free indulgence’, this year ‘we’re seeing a shift to a more balanced, health-conscious trend’.”

“As the first sparkling beverage to combine both prebiotics and probiotics, wildwonder is the culmination of Eastern herbal philosophy and modern taste,” says the wildwonder spokesperson. “The five effervescent flavours provide a simple solution to gut health that’s free from the vinegary flavour of kombucha and bitter taste of traditional medicine.”

A boost for kombucha

Remedy Drinks, a leading UK and Australia-based kombucha brand, has been well-positioned to take advantage of this shift. Its founders, Sarah and Emmet Condon, started brewing kombucha in their kitchen in Melbourne and loved how the fermented concoction made them feel, not to mention how it tasted. That set them thinking about all the drinks in the supermarket that claimed to be healthy but really weren’t, fruit juice itself being a prime example.

“They saw this as an opportunity to make it right, and although Remedy has grown massively since it was founded in 2012, expanding into markets across the globe, it remains true to the authentic brewing techniques the founders started with in their kitchen,” says Hadley.

Remedy drinks are live, unfiltered and unpasteurised, meaning they are full of live cultures and antioxidants. Just as important is what they leave out. The drinks are free from artificial sweeteners, and although sugar is used in production, none remains by the time it reaches the consumer as it’s converted into organic acids during the long-age brewing process.

“Some people have a hard time believing healthy can also taste good, but we are noticing this is becoming less and less of a barrier.”
Ian Hadley

The brand also offers a line of energy drinks that deliver the same caffeine levels as the big players in the market, albeit with all the brand’s usual health benefits. “We’ve used natural ingredients such as green tea, raw coffee bean extract and ginseng, delivering an exciting alternative to traditional sugary energy drinks,” says Hadley.

While the UK’s kombucha market is still relatively undeveloped, it is entering a rapid growth phase. Grocery kombucha sales will exceed £20m this year, growing at 23% year-on-year, and according to Hadley, Remedy has driven more growth in the category over the past year than all the other brands put together. Elsewhere in the world, the market is more developed, not least in the US, Canada and Remedy’s home market of Australia. If the UK’s consumption per capita reached Australian levels, the category would already be worth £250m. “In the UK, a greater focus on health and wellness is pushing kombucha into the mainstream, and this will continue to grow,” says Hadley.

Botanicals and citrus are in

A challenge for any functional drinks producer is ensuring that the beverages taste good too. Hadley says that Remedy purposefully crafts its drinks to be accessible to the mainstream soft drink consumer, making them a simple swap for anyone trying to improve their health and well-being.

“It’s not as simple as creating a product that has little or no sugar – it must taste great to keep customers coming back for more,” he says. “We are proud to offer kombucha that isn’t an ‘acquired taste’, with flavours such raspberry lemonade and ginger lemon delivering a complex blend of sweet and sour notes that are perfectly balanced by our chief brewer. Our newest launch, Orange Squeeze, delivers a healthier version of an orange fizzy drink that is hugely resonating with UK audiences.”

For wildwonder, its botanical flavours are a clear differentiator for its brand, mixing subtler tastes like ginger, turmeric and elderberry with the boldness of a California fruit stand. The brand’s best-selling flavour is strawberry passion, but with the recent launch of pineapple paradise quickly saw the new flavour reach the top three best-selling items at Sprouts, the US whole-food supermarket chain.

Both these brands intersect nicely with the Flavorman report, which says citrus flavours are this year’s most prominent flavour trend. Generally, consumers are looking for “uncomplicated citruses with growing interest in orange, grapefruit, lime and other berry blends”, while other popular flavour extracts include “botanicals such as butterfly pea flower, black tea and chamomile”.

On top of that, consumers are seeking “herbal ingredients such as ginseng root to strengthen immune systems, ginger for cognitive energy and pain relief, and pepper flavours that provide a functional mouthfeel”. In other words, drinks that not only are healthy but that taste healthy too – and as a new generation of consumers are realising, that doesn’t have to mean punishing.

According to Hadley, Remedy will continue to focus on developing consumer awareness and understanding, with a particular emphasis on sampling to showcase its flavours. “Some people have a hard time believing healthy can also taste good, but we are noticing this is becoming less and less of a barrier,” he says. As the wellness trend continues, it is no surprise that more and more companies will continue experimenting with health and flavour.