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Functional fungi, adaptogens fuel tea’s wellness revolution

Tea is enjoying a record-breaking popularity surge, fueled by its health benefits, cleaner caffeine, diverse flavors and innovative functional ingredients like adaptogens and mushrooms.

Kimberly Decker

January 16, 2024

6 Min Read
tea

At a Glance

  • Searches for tea on Google doubled in 20 years, and the market is thriving, reaching $8.7 billion.
  • Consumers are drawn to tea’s inherent health benefits, like antioxidants and L-theanine’s “cleaner caffeine” effect.
  • Beyond health, the category offers a wide range of flavors, from fruit-infused options to innovative blends.

It’s official: Tea’s taken the popular imagination by storm. Data from Google Trends indicates that the tonic sparked a record-high number of searches in 2023, more than doubling the inquiry volume it generated a mere 20 years ago.

How does such an age-old brew remain relevant amidst ever-changing preferences? By changing along with them — and by leveraging what made it so timeless in the first place.

Tea’s time

That’s certainly been an observation of Carla Saunders, senior marketing manager at Cargill. “Tea has definitely been having a moment,” she said. “It’s been touted as the next growth wave in beverages for several years and has the sales figures to back that up.”

To wit, tea writ large constitutes an $8.7 billion category, per proprietary NielsenIQ data, while the ready-to-drink (RTD) segment alone raked in $4.1 billion in 2023. “No wonder so many companies have expanded into this space,” Saunders explained. “Everywhere you turn, there’s another brand adding RTD teas to their portfolios.”

Nurture by nature

And when they do, they’re usually “healthy” options. “The big driver behind those sales is consumers’ heightened focus on health and wellness, and their desire to eat and drink with a purpose,” Saunders said.

Tea meets those needs to a T. As Nadia De La Vega, director of tea sustainability and content at DAVIDsTEA, pointed out, it’s done so for ages, too. “There’s a reason this beverage has stood the test of time,” she said. “Before becoming a pantry staple, tea was more of a medicinal herb consumed for its health benefits rather than its taste; now it’s enjoyed for both.”

Cleaner caffeine

Credit for tea’s benefits goes to the plant itself, Camellia sinensis. Packed with phytochemicals, it’s inherently rich in flavonoid and catechin polyphenols — known for their antioxidant effects — as well as in minerals, methylxanthines like caffeine and the amino acid L-theanine.

Those last two form a “power duo” responsible for “the feelings of calm and mental alertness that make tea such a great choice for those looking for an energizing beverage or an option to reduce their coffee intake,” according to De La Vega.

Kelly Miller, research and development lead at DAVIDsTEA, agreed. “We’re seeing an uptick in consumer interest in tea — especially matcha — as a cleaner, more sustained source of caffeine thanks to the presence of naturally occurring L-theanine,” she said.

Saunders even described “natural” energy as an “especially hot space” that tea “plays into well.” What’s more, brands are giving formulations an “extra lift” via the addition of ingredients like yerba mate, guarana and others “known to deliver an energy bump,” she added.

Tea’s wellness reach extends beyond energy, however. “There are fertility teas, slimdown teas, detox teas; there really is a tea for every need,” Saunders said.

Extra credit

The category’s extension into broader need states makes sense to Smaro Kokkinidou, principal food scientist at Cargill. “Since ancient times, teas have been associated with health,” she said. “Now, beverage brands are leaning into that well-established health halo with the addition of trending functional ingredients.”

Those ingredients include elderberry, ginseng, collagen and mushrooms. “It seems nothing’s off limits,” Kokkinidou said. And their benefits run to everything from supporting immune and digestive health to improving cognition, reducing stress and more.

Functional fungi in particular, along with adaptogens, rank “right at the top of our list,” Miller noted. “Like L-theanine, these ingredients can help the body naturally adapt to stress, which is something we could all use right now, especially as consumers begin understanding how poor stress management can negatively impact other aspects of wellness,” she said.

Complementary balance

Those are the upsides that functional teas can offer. For those building the products behind the scenes, however, formulation introduces some downsides, at least from a sensory standpoint.

Not only is tea itself “prone to strong aromatic off notes and astringency, add the negatives that come with many functional ingredients — like intense bitter notes and even more astringency — and formulators can face even more challenges,” Saunders said.

For example, two of the functional ingredients that Miller “finds trickiest to work with” are valerian (Valeriana officinalis) and ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) root. Her strategy for counteracting their “potent and sometimes unpleasant flavors” involves pairing the roots with ingredients whose profiles complement them, such as ginger, “which shares an earthiness but also introduces some pleasant heat,” she said.

“If you were drinking ashwagandha on its own, you might not expect or be familiar with its earthiness,” she explained. “But pairing it with similar-tasting ingredients introduces a familiarity that customers can set their expectations around — a bit like a benefit buddy system.”

She also offsets unwelcome notes like bitterness with ingredients that simply taste good, “which is one of the reasons we love including naturally sweet fruit pieces such as apple in many of our functional blends,” she added.

Spoonful of sweetener

Saunders supports that tactic, noting that fruit flavors account for nearly one in three new category launchers. “With citrus and berry flavors leading the charge, these fruit-infused teas offer a sweet, refreshing break that consumers can feel good about enjoying,” she said.

When it comes to balancing a functional tea’s profile, Kokkinidou considers fine-tuning the sweetener system “a key starting point” on the road to success. In fact, she considers functional teas “an ideal space for our most advanced sweetener system, EverSweet stevia sweetener + ClearFlo natural flavor.”

The multitasking blend optimizes not just taste and flavor, but mouthfeel and functional factors like solubility and dissolution. “At the same time, it helps manage off flavors from other ingredients while also enhancing characterizing flavors,” she said. Also, its “near-sucrose profile” and “more sugar-like experience” relative to other stevia sweeteners, even at higher concentrations, scores points with sugar-wary consumers.

As Saunders noted, there are more of those consumers out there, and many view the excess sugar in popular teas — with some products packing more than 40 grams per serving — “a blemish on the category’s health credentials.”

Thus, she thinks it’s imperative that brands, especially in the RTD space, “balance health with taste.” “All that sugar can be a deal breaker for those drawn to the category’s health halo, and reducing it remains the top way consumers say beverages can be made healthier,” she said.

Beyond better-for-you

“Of course, not everyone comes to the category for health, as there’s an indulgent side to tea, too,” Saunders added.

DAVIDsTEA fully embraces that indulgence. “We like to think of ourselves as ‘flavor first’ since we ultimately want our customers to enjoy the cup that they’re having,” De La Vega said. For example, the company includes rosemary, citrus and GABA green tea — which she said are “popular for promoting well-being and focus” — in its Blood Orange Boost blend, yielding a cup that is “unlike traditional wellness blends: bright and citrus-forward with a touch of aromatics.”

While certain ingredients and flavors — such as botanicals and soothing spices — connote health and wellness, Miller is quick to emphasize that wellness as a concept “isn’t one-size-fits-all, and we’re seeing consumers increasingly challenge these preconceptions.”

The message for tea brands is that, though it’s important to keep “traditional” wellness flavors in the product portfolio, consumers “are increasingly receptive to functionally boosted and healthful takes on profiles historically dismissed as ‘bad for you,’” Miller said.

Two cases in point are DAVIDsTEA's Vanilla Cappuccino and Ashwagandha Pumpkin Superfood Latte powder, both of which she said consumers can feel good about indulging in. “The last few years have been an unprecedentedly stressful time, so it’s probably no surprise that people are turning to flavors that provide a sense of comfort and nostalgia,” Miller explained.

It’s definitely no surprise that they’re turning to tea. “’Tea now and tea always!’ is what we believe,” De La Vega said. “Whether you gravitate towards wellness blends or innovative flavor-forward profiles, they all harness the benefit of the specific ingredients they feature.”

About the Author(s)

Kimberly Decker

Contributing editor

Kimberly J. Decker is a Bay Area food writer who has worked in product development for the frozen sector and written about food, nutrition and the culinary arts. Reach her at [email protected].

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