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The top trends driving innovation in healthy drinks

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With “healthy” now implying a holistic approach to body and mind, consumers are looking for more from their beverages.

The pandemic left a lasting impact on individuals’ eating and drinking habits. As many as 6 in 10 consumers worldwide are now more conscious of their health and well-being in the wake of COVID-19, according to FMCG Gurus data. And as more people adapt to a “new normal” and resume their busy, on-the-go lifestyles, functional drinks are skyrocketing in popularity. In additional FMCG Gurus research, almost 41% of consumers said functional drinks were an appealing option to boost their health. An exciting opportunity exists for lifestyle and sports nutrition brands to innovate their offerings and stand out on increasingly crowded retail shelves.

Companies looking to excel in this space should be aware of the main trends driving growth, as well as ways manufacturers can help meet the evolving needs.

A whole body-mind approach

While the term “healthy” once conjured up ideas of weight management or consuming five fruits or vegetables a day, research shows it has evolved to mean a more holistic approach to body and mind. Although immune health, heart health, digestive health and healthy aging—to name a few—remain top priorities for consumers, mental well-being is fast becoming of equal importance.

2020 research by FMCG Gurus showed 42% of consumers reported a desire to improve their mental well-being. Proprietary Innova data indicated half of respondents suffering with stress said it impacted other areas of well-being, such as bad moods and issues sleeping. Although consumers have traditionally looked for products that improve concentration and mood, more recently, insomnia and anxiety have understandably risen on the priority list. Mintel recently reported that over half of U.S. consumers have tried or are interested in functional food and drink that can aid sleep, support calming or help with relaxation.

The key to tackling these issues may lie within the gut. Scientific evidence increasingly suggests a healthy gut microbiome supports not only digestive health,1 but a whole range of issues from immunity2 to mental well-being.3 Studies have highlighted that good gut health can influence brain health,4,5 reduce stress levels6,7 and support better sleep.8,9

Opportunity is also knocking for drink formulators to explore ingredients that support the gut-brain axis—a network that connects the gut and the brain, using the nervous system, endocrine (hormonal) and immune pathways for bi-directional communication.

Prebiotic ingredients such as galactooligosaccharides (GOS) have been gaining traction among drink manufacturers. GOS can be easy to formulate with, as well as combined with other ingredients to provide potential benefits in a variety of different drinks.

By definition, prebiotics confer a health benefit.10 They can also stimulate the growth of beneficial bacteria like Bifidobacteria.11 Like some other microbiota members, Bifidobacteria are thought to be able to signal to the brain (via the gut-brain axis), resulting in the induction of specific neurotransmitters linked to the reduction of stress and anxiety indicators, which are thought to hamper a good night’s sleep.12 As research continues to explore the influences on brain health amid rising concerns about stress and sleep, these ingredients are expected to play an increasingly important role in healthy drink formulation.

The power of personalization

The trend for personalized nutrition is also gathering further momentum. Consumers are taking a more proactive approach to their health, educating themselves online about nutrition and looking for solutions that suit their specific lifestyles. Functional drinks with customizable nutrition or specific formulations targeting different demographics will be key to tapping into this emerging market. In performance nutrition, for example, women account for a large proportion of purchases, yet few products are tailored to them. Opportunity abounds for brands to capitalize on interest in personalization, with 63% of consumers interested in drinks personalized to meet their individual needs, per FMCG Gurus.

An example of personalization in action is the “protein+” trend, which is quickly gaining popularity alongside a growing health-conscious population. With increasing numbers of products already featuring high protein claims in the market, protein+ has become a way for brands to differentiate their offering with additional health benefits, such as vitamins and prebiotics. For example, protein shakes are well-established—particularly among performance athletes or serious gym goers—but customizing the formulation to target additional health benefits will expand their appeal to a wider audience beyond traditional sports nutrition consumers.

Health on-the-go

Alongside growing interest in nutrition, discerning consumers are reevaluating their snacking habits to align with their health and well-being goals. As workplaces begin to encourage employees to return to offices, convenience will once again be a key factor for many commuters. Ready-to-drinks (RTDs) are expected to continue rising in popularity, with consumers looking to nutritious products that require no preparation and are suitable for drinking on the go. This category is ripe for innovation. Compact products like protein shots, which can fit into everyday lives and routines, are attracting attention from busy consumers who want a quick nutrition boost.

Despite consumers seeking healthy on-the-go options, indulgence remains a priority for many consumers unwilling to compromise on taste and texture. According to 2021 trends research, three-fourths (74%) of global consumers stated that they like products with new and unusual flavors, signaling space for further innovation in the healthy drink category. Many healthy ingredients, however, often have off-notes, such as bitterness or a metallic taste, which can be off-putting to consumers. Efficacy is therefore a key consideration for RTD formulators, as well as the addition of acid and heat-stable ingredients that can withstand specific manufacturing requirements.

Achieving healthy drink success

In a fast-growing, increasingly diverse market, anticipating the most influential trends and developing products quickly that meet those needs is key. Consumer preferences have changed extensively over the last few years and the healthy drink category is one area showing significant potential. Brands have the opportunity to develop convenient, healthy and holistic functional drinks—without compromising taste and texture. Choosing efficacious, easy-to-formulate ingredients will be key to delivering on these consumer trends and aligning with various lifestyles, to ultimately keep shoppers coming back for more.

Editor’s note: To read related content, click the link to access our “Raise a glass: Innovation in healthy beverages” digital magazine.

Vicky Davies is the global marketing director for performance, active and medical nutrition at FrieslandCampina Ingredients. She and her team strive to bring superior, beneficial nutrition and health-related solutions to customers and consumers worldwide. Davies trained as a physiologist and nutritionist, and has a doctorate in nutritional biochemistry. She has been working in health and nutrition for nearly two decades, holding posts in academia and clinical nutrition research, as well as leadership roles in communications and marketing in multinational companies, including Danone and Philips.


1 Johnstone N et al. “Anxiolytic effects of a galacto-oligosaccharides prebiotic in healthy female volunteers are associated with reduced negative bias and the gut bacterial composition.” medRxiv.  2019. DOI:10.1101/19011403.

2 Asarat M et al. “Short-Chain Fatty Acids Regulate Cytokines and Th17/Treg Cells in Human Peripheral Blood Mononuclear Cells in vitro.” Immunol Invest. 2016;45(3):205-222.

3 Burokas A et al. “Targeting the Microbiota-Gut-Brain Axis: Prebiotics Have Anxiolytic and Antidepressant-like Effects and Reverse the Impact of Chronic Stress in Mice.” Biol Psychiatry. 2017;82(7):472-487.

4 Johnstone N et al. “Anxiolytic effects of a galacto-oligosaccharides prebiotic in healthy females (18-25 years) with corresponding changes in gut bacterial composition.” Sci Rep. 2021;11:8302.

5 Codagnone MG et al. “Programming Bugs: Microbiota and the Developmental Origins of Brain Health and Disease.” Biol Psychiatry. 2019;85(2):150-163.

6 Schmidt K et al. “Prebiotic intake reduces the waking cortisol response and alters emotional bias in healthy volunteers.” Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2015;232(10):1793-1801.

7 Shadid R et al. “Effects of galactooligosaccharide and long-chain fructooligosaccharide supplementation during pregnancy on maternal and neonatal microbiota and immunity—a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study.” Am J Clin Nutr. 2007;86(5):1426-1437.

8 Schaafsma A et al. “The Effect of A Whey-Protein and Galacto-Oligosaccharides Based Product on Parameters of Sleep Quality, Stress, and Gut Microbiota in Apparently Healthy Adults with Moderate Sleep Disturbances: A Randomized Controlled Cross-Over Study.” Nutrients. 2021;13(7):2204.

9 Saper C et al. “Hypothalamic regulation of sleep and circadian rhythms.” Nature. 2005;437:1257-1263.

10 Gibson GR et al. “Expert consensus document: The International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP) consensus statement on the definition and scope of prebiotics.” Nat Rev Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2017;14(8):491-502.

11 Walton GE et al. “A randomised crossover study investigating the effects of galacto-oligosaccharides on the faecal microbiota in men and women over 50 years of age.” Br J Nutr. 2012;107(10):1466-1475.

12 Cryan JF et al. “The Microbiota–Gut–Brain Axis.” Physiol Rev. 2019;99(4):1877-2013.

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