It has been a whirlwind of a year for the food and beverage industry. At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, some brands saw a surge in sales and had to scramble to increase production to keep up with demand while others were forced into survival mode.
More than eight months have passed, and brands are still figuring out what the best path forward looks like. As if changing consumer preferences weren’t hard enough to keep up with before the pandemic, it’s even more uncertain how consumer purchase habits will evolve as we approach a new season, a new presidential administration, a possible vaccine and anything else the new year brings.
Despite these unprecedented times, it is important innovation doesn’t suffer if brands want to grow long-term. Brands that wait too long to innovate will miss opportunities to be the frontrunner in categories and risk launching “me too” products in an oversaturated market.
Data from the last several months suggest there are a few trends that are here to stay for the foreseeable future. One of the biggest trends is that physical health is a top priority. Although this has been a significant trend for several years, it has been accelerated by the pandemic.
A survey of 2,000 Americans by OnePoll found 4 in 5 individuals are completely rethinking their health priorities since the onset of the pandemic. More than half stated they wanted to eat more fruits and vegetables and to increase their exercise regimen, but the largest shift was the desire for immune-boosting products. Eighty percent of respondents said they want to incorporate immunity-strengthening foods and supplements into their diet.
Google search data also supports these trends. Searches in the last month for the term, “exercise,” are up 5% in the U.S. compared to the first month of the year (a time when consumers thinking about exercise is typically at an all-time high) and searches for exercise equipment are up 14.5%. Additionally, searches for immunity have increased 34%. This suggests consumers are seriously thinking about their wellness goals and looking for help to achieve them.
Knowing that consumers are focused on health, here are some ways brands can innovate:
- Better-for-you products. Whether it’s renovating a current product line or introducing a new, delicious health-forward beverage to the market, there’s a lot of opportunity to help consumers be their best selves. This could mean continuing the pattern of developing low and no sugar products, reducing calories and incorporating natural ingredients. Brands can also incorporate fruits and vegetables to help consumers meet their health goals. Superfoods are especially of interest to consumers -- Google searches for superfoods have grown 10% since January.
- Immunity beverages. There are so many ways to promote immune health, such as incorporating vitamins and minerals, electrolytes, probiotics and anti-inflammatory ingredients. Ingredients that provide benefits naturally are even more attractive. In March, searches for, “natural immune booster,” skyrocketed 422% from January, though they’ve subsided in recent months. Consumers are also searching for immune-boosting nutrients like zinc (+80%) and vitamin C (+49%).
- Fitness boosters. Consumers want to exercise more, which creates an opportunity to introduce a new audience to sports nutrition products. Beverages such as protein shakes and waters, electrolyte replenishers, performance enhancers and weight-loss elixirs that help consumers meet their fitness goals have a lot of potential. Differentiators in the category include using clean label, plant-based and/or diet-friendly ingredients as well as incorporating multiple functional ingredients in a single product to give consumers more bang for their buck.
Many of these trends leverage the benefits of functional ingredients, which often present challenges product developers must overcome to achieve the ideal taste, texture and appearance of a product. Off-notes, insolubility and stability issues, color distortion or degradation, and strong odors from ingredient interactions are common issues that can affect the quality of a product. Finding the right balance of functionals, stabilizers and taste modulators is essential to creating a product that satisfies consumers’ expectations.
Most functional ingredients are also negatively impacted by the high temperatures experienced in thermal processing. The higher the temperature, and longer the exposure time, the more risk of functional ingredient degradation. As such, beverages processed under ultra-high temperature processing (UHT) or retort will suffer the most functional ingredient loss. To combat losses during processing, formulators typically add an appropriate amount of overage to their products. Other steps can be taken to protect functional ingredients, such as using encapsulated forms or, depending on the mechanism of degradation, the addition of antioxidants.
Additionally, brands launching functional beverages should make sure claims on product labels and ingredients used in the product are compliant with regulatory guidelines. For example, products that use ingredients that aren’t FDA GRAS (generally recognized as safe) and are marketed for their health benefits, such as, “helps support your immune system” will be labeled as a supplement. Other considerations include whether or not there is significant evidence to back up a health claim and whether or not a claim has been reviewed by the FDA.
Although everything may seem like it is at a standstill because of the pandemic, it has actually accelerated many health and wellness trends. There is a lot of opportunity for brands to renovate existing products or introduce disruptive products that deliver the health benefits consumers want, and it’s important to keep innovating for the market to grow. To continue the conversation about developing health-forward beverages, reach out to me at [email protected].
Holly McHugh is the marketing associate at Imbibe, a Chicago-based beverage development company. She focuses on the company's external communications and brand awareness. She also monitors and analyzes beverage trends to guide clients in making strategic decisions about product development. She has a bachelor's degree from Columbia College Chicago and a master's degree from the University of Denver.