Cactus, birch, lychee and lemongrass: Soft drink consumers turn to natural flavors and functional innovations

By Rachel Arthur

- Last updated on GMT

Standard fruit flavors make way for those with functional properties. Pic: iStock / Og Vision
Standard fruit flavors make way for those with functional properties. Pic: iStock / Og Vision

Related tags Flavor Soft drink Carbonated water

Consumers are demanding more natural flavors in soft drinks, driven not only by taste but also by functional properties of ingredients, according to Canadean. 

Natural flavors are coming from fruit and also from herbs, trees (such as birch or horse chestnut) or more adventurous ingredients such as cactus and lychee.

This trend is tied in with consumers’ desires for healthier products. But while more exotic ingredients and combinations could build up craft options in soft drinks, Canadean says the emergence of a category akin to that of craft beer is debatable.

Health and wellness boosts functional ingredients

Canadean analyst Craig Drew told BeverageDaily standard fruit flavors are in gradual decline, while those with functional properties are attracting interest.

“Consumers are becoming far more discerning in terms of the ingredients in their beverages, and knowledgeable about the health benefits of any functional offerings, as a direct result of the global trend towards health and wellbeing,” ​he said.

“It is not simply about the flavor; consumers are now far more interested in additional functional innovations, where key ingredients were sourced, and clear and informative labeling.”

Flavor innovations

Czech Republic:​ Look out for herbal flavors, tree flavors such as birch or horse chestnut, fruit mixes and products containing cactus and lychee.

Estonia:​ Consumers want a vitamin boost and desire flavors that come from local fruits. Take for example Vitamineral water (from Olvi Group); or Aura Active Shake (also Olvi Group) which has berry mix and apple/cherry variants, both using natural flavors from local fruit.  

Austria:​ Raspberry variants are seeing success, such as the carbonated drink Keli (ZF Gatraenke) and flavored water Roemerquelle Emotion (Coca-Cola).

Germany:​ Eistee (Alnatura) is an organic lemongrass flavoured RTD tea drink, sweetened with stevia and grape juice extract.

RTD iced tea is a category with lots of consumer experimentation – almost two-thirds of consumers say they choose new flavors sometimes or often, according to Canadean’s research.

The desire for healthy choices is evident in this category as well: 65% of regular drinkers actively use food or drinks to improve their health. Producers offer purity, convenience, and functional options to appeal to consumers. Meanwhile, the preparation style, leaf origin and even picking season are explained to consumers.

How adventurous are consumers?

Sara Grady, consumer insight analyst at Canadean, said brands must ensure their innovations are truly relevant to their target consumers’ needs. This will help them reach consumer groups that are typically less open to new flavors.

39% of consumers globally say they always choose familiar flavors when shopping for food and drink. It is older shoppers (aged 55+) who are most likely to remain true to their favorite flavors, (45% of this category),” ​she said, referencing Canadean’s Q2, 15 Flavors and Fragrances survey.

“Older shoppers, a hugely untapped niche, can be encouraged through positive sampling experiences, which can help present exotic flavors as less intimidating and more tangible."

In terms of gender, men are typically less experimental than women, continued Grady. 

"This could be due to a lack of interest in novel innovations, but is more likely related to the higher focus of female-targeted marketing efforts.

“While the industry is certainly changing to tap into male shoppers too, there is still some way to go. The same survey showed that male shoppers in general were just as likely as women to be motivated to try new flavors by curiosity; suggesting there is indeed a lack of relevant innovation that captures the male imagination."

Male consumers could be reached through gender-targeted branding, peer recommendations and traditional advertising and media, she suggested.

Craft soft drinks: a new craze?

Can all this innovation develop a clear craft category within soft drinks?

Drew says this is not a guaranteed progression, and that producers need to create flavors that endure beyond the novelty phase.

“Although there is clearly mounting demand for natural, locally-sourced flavors and functional innovations with some big players getting involved (for example PepsiCo’s Caleb Kola), what currently exists of a craft segment remains niche,” ​he said.

“In the Czech Republic, for example, although competition among soft drinks producers has been the driving force behind a frenzy of flavor innovations, notably in still drinks and carbonates, the popularity of any unusual flavors (eg birch and horse chestnut) has fallen noticeably once the novelty has worn off."

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