February 2021 Issue

Beverages: Drink Innovations March On
By Mindy Hermann, MBA, RDN
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 23, No. 2, P. 9

Here are five of the trends overflowing in 2021.

Beverages are booming beyond their traditional role for hydration. In its report U.S. Beverage Market Outlook 2020: Grocery Shopping & Personal Consumption in the Coronavirus Era, the market research firm Packaged Facts predicts a jump in sales from $150 billion in 2019 to more than $160 billion by the end of 2020.

Packaged Facts identifies three major beverage trends: plant-based, less sugar and calories, and functional. Plant-based appeals to consumers seeking holistic health, natural ingredients, and environmental sustainability. Beverages with plant-based ingredients often incorporate other features such as high protein and/or reduced sugar. The listing of added sugars on the Nutrition Facts panel shines a spotlight on the sometimes-high sugar content of beverages. Functional benefits offer a perceived short cut for better health and performance long term, along with enhanced immunity to weather the pandemic.

The market research firm Health Focus International describes a trend of “drinkable health” as meeting shopper desires for health benefits beyond hydration. One-third of North American consumers surveyed by Health Focus believe that beverages can match the nutrition of foods, and nearly one-half always or usually select beverages for healthful reasons. Kombucha, “value-added” waters, and energy drinks are just a few examples of the changing landscape.

While the array of trending beverages is broad, this article highlights five categories: zero-proof, immune-supportive, weight loss, high-protein, and reduced/natural sugar beverages.

Zero Proof
Zero-proof beverages were popularized by bars and restaurants pre-COVID-19 as a festive alternative to alcohol. When these alcohol-free beverages moved into retail, they gained enough traction to be named by Whole Foods as a top trend in 2020. In addition, the “sober-curious” movement encourages consumers to reduce their alcohol consumption for lifestyle and health benefits. Variations on kombucha and sparkling mocktails are among the most popular products, and zero-proof spirits are emerging.

“We’ve seen a flurry of ‘spirit’ releases that incorporate zero-proof bourbons, rums, gins, and other liquors,” says Maeve Webster, an Arlington, Vermont–based food industry trends expert and president of Menu Matters.

Zero proof doesn’t mean zero calories, however, so careful label reading is important. Julie Schwartz, MS, RDN, CSOWM, a professional health and wellness coach in Safety Harbor, Florida, cautions that consumers may not realize the calorie cost of beverages. “Beverages and mocktails are empty calories, especially for people trying to lose or maintain weight, and may be as high in calories as their alcoholic counterparts.”

Immune Support
Immunity benefits appeal to many consumers who desire added protection from COVID-19. Products positioned for immune support often bundle additional features, including florals and botanicals for naturalness and sustainability, as well as ingredients associated with energy and digestive support. Elderberry, Schisandra, goji berry, echinacea, and mushrooms join the more widely used ginger, lemon, and turmeric as featured immune support ingredients in sparkling beverages, ready-to-drink iced teas, and kombucha. Some beverages also incorporate nutrients associated with immunity, namely vitamin C and zinc.

Product launches are running ahead of the science, and most ingredients associated with immunity require additional research. However, drinking more calorie-free and lower-calorie beverages in general, and beverages with established ingredients such as ginger, lemon, and turmeric, may help support overall health.

“The impact of a pandemic has made people more conscious of their health, and the lockdown put stress on people’s eating habits, so now everyone is getting back into shape and worrying about the strength of their immune system, including immunity-related functionality such as sleep, mood, inflammation, and gut health,” Webster says. “I predict a flurry of activity in both nonalcoholic and alcoholic beverages, ranging from very specific immunity-focused products to the inclusion of ingredients that are either proven to impact these areas or are generally believed, with or without scientific backing, to do so.”

Weight Loss
Weight loss beverages typically fall into two broad categories: meal replacements and soft drinks, teas, and coffees. Meal replacements are formulated to take the place of a meal or snack, usually with fewer calories. Some offer balanced macronutrients, while others shift macronutrients to emphasize protein—especially for post–bariatric surgery patients—and/or fat for followers of the high-fat, carb-restricted keto diet. Stimulant ingredients such as guarana, ginseng, yerba mate, and caffeine are promoted for speeding up metabolism and boosting energy. Ingredients promoted for satiety include fiber-rich psyllium, grains, vegetables, and fruit, as well as apple cider vinegar, a traditional ingredient with promoted promises of managing cravings and lowering blood sugar.

Single-serve canned cocktails that gained popularity prepandemic and continue to grow as an alternative to drinking in bars have added appeal—they help consumers control portions and, depending on the product, can be lower in alcohol and calories.

Schwartz cautions that ingredients marketed for weight loss usually aren’t effective. “Most are more about marketing hype and less about weight loss or health. They offer a wide variety of purported benefits but no evidence-based research that demonstrates significant weight loss results, even short term. Also, some can be unsafe. Beverages with a high concentration of apple cider vinegar, for example, can exacerbate reflux and erode the lining of the esophagus.”

High Protein
Protein continues to enjoy a health halo among consumers trying to lose weight and/or improve performance. Concentrated dairy protein ingredients and growing plant protein options—pea, rice, chickpea, and others—appeal to consumers across the omnivore-flexitarian-vegetarian-vegan spectrum. Protein also is being added to canned and bottled iced coffees with added dairy and dairy alternative milks and creamers.

Protein quality varies, and that impacts how the body utilizes and benefits from particular proteins. Content of the other macronutrients is important, so label reading is critical, especially for consumers with health issues such as diabetes. “All high-protein beverages are not created equal, so it is important to look at the Nutrition Facts panel for total calories, grams of protein, and total grams of carbohydrate per serving,” says Toby Smithson, MS, RDN, LD, CDCES, FAND, a diabetes lifestyle expert with DiabetesEveryDay and author of Diabetes Meal Planning and Nutrition for Dummies, based in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. “Individuals with diabetes who are using protein shakes as a meal replacement to cut down on carbohydrate consumption should keep total carbohydrate to less than 10 g per serving.” Smithson adds that replacing carbs with protein isn’t always the best approach to blood glucose management, citing a 2019 study by Paterson and colleagues, wherein protein loads with and without carbohydrates caused blood glucose to rise.1

Reduced/Natural Sugar
The association of sugar intake with negative health outcomes, along with the required listing of added sugars on the updated Nutrition Facts panel, has boosted demand for beverages with less added sugar, less sweetness, fruit ingredients that add sweetness but without counting toward added sugars, and natural noncaloric sweeteners such as stevia and monk fruit. The sugar alcohol erythritol is gaining popularity in canned and bottled beverages for its sugarlike properties and absence of calories and carbohydrates, a feature that appeals to consumers following keto and other low-carb diets.

Careful label reading is important, particularly for consumers who are managing diabetes. “It’s important to read past the marketing terms on the label like ‘no added sugar’ or ‘sugar free,’” Smithson advises. “Sugar-free or no added sugar does not mean drinking unlimited amounts, so encourage clients to look at the Nutrition Facts [for] portion size, calories per serving, and total grams of carbohydrate per serving. Also, sugar alcohols such as mannitol, xylitol, sorbitol, and erythritol can cause [gastrointestinal] distress, depending on when they are consumed, the amount consumed in one sitting, whether a beverage is consumed on an empty stomach vs a full stomach, individual response, and adaptation to a particular ingredient over time.”

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What’s Next
“When bars and restaurants get back to innovating, expect beverages and innovations from world cuisines such as Asian, Middle Eastern, and South American, as well as experimentation beyond the current beverage trends,” Webster says. She also predicts a rise in new and innovative celebratory beverages as people return to a social life without restrictions.

Bottom Line
As with any trendy product, the promise and the reality of new beverages rarely match, and label reading is essential. RDs should advise clients to look for beverages that can be part of an overall healthful eating plan, with calories and nutrients that are appropriate for their purpose. Dietitians also can monitor research findings on the effectiveness of emerging ingredients that may confer added benefit to beverages.

— Mindy Hermann, MBA, RDN, is a food and nutrition communicator in metro New York.

1. Paterson MA, King BR, Smart CEM, Smith T, Rafferty J, Lopez PE. Impact of dietary protein on postprandial glycaemic control and insulin requirements in type 1 diabetes: a systematic review. Diabet Med. 2019;36(12):1585-1599.