Flavor simplicity, functional ingredients & clean label: Imbibe on beverage trends

By Mary Ellen Shoup

- Last updated on GMT

A emphasis on clean, simple labels and authenticity in flavors are key beverage trends, Imbibe identified. Photo: iStock - a_namenko
A emphasis on clean, simple labels and authenticity in flavors are key beverage trends, Imbibe identified. Photo: iStock - a_namenko

Related tags Taste Drink Flavor

Consumer demands are trending towards simplicity and authenticity in flavors, packaging, and ingredients, according to Andy Dratt, executive vice president of Illinois-based Imbibe (a full-service beverage development company). 

Imbibe’s 40,000-square-foot beverage innovation center has an R&D team comprised of more than 30 flavor chemists and product developers who develop products across almost every beverage category including energy drinks, protein drinks, and non-dairy milk alternatives.

Imbibe Flavor Technicians
Imbibe's approach to beverage development involves a flavor chemist and product developer working side by side to develop both the flavor and finished beverage formula at the same time.

So what trends have they seen emerge?

“I think it comes back to a natural, cleaner label as a continued interest,”​ Dratt told BeverageDaily. “There’s a growing reliance among consumers on third-party certifications as a proxy for product quality or just alignment with their own personal value.”

Transparency in flavors

Beverages that taste true to the key ingredients that they contain are trending and companies are responding by simplifying flavor profiles.

“I think you’re going to see more and more products whose tastes leverage the inherent flavor profile of a key ingredient that it contains,”​ Dratt said.

Dratt pointed to tree waters like coconut, maple, birch, and cactus waters as prime examples of a trend towards cleaner, simpler flavors.

“Beverages no longer need to conceal the inherent taste profile of these types of ingredients. Consumers want flavors that are authentic and taste true to nature. From fresh fruits to more aromatic components, consumers have expanded their palate,”​ Dratt said.

Underdeveloped packaging opportunities

“There are countless examples of beverages where the main differentiator, at least initially, is the package and I think it remains an underdeveloped differentiator,”​ Dratt said.

Dratt believes that companies need to take advantage of differentiating themselves through packaging and unique bottle shapes, pointing to examples like Califia Farms, which sets itself apart from other non-dairy packages with its “gourd-shaped” bottle, or Dry Sparkling’s slender glass bottles topped with gold bottle caps.

“Even though you can differentiate through branding, if you’ve still got the same basic shape as everyone next to you, it’s very hard to stand out, in a very crowded space like the beverage aisle,”​ he added.

Functional ingredients

Imbibe is also seeing a rise in consumer demand for beverages that provide functional benefits such as satiety, energy, cognitive health, digestion and a myriad of other health claims.

“We continue to see a huge increase in the use of protein as an overarching dietary trend… incorporating protein into product formats where you previously would not have anticipated,”​ Dratt said.

There is also a strong, continued demand for “natural non-nutritive sweeteners like stevia and monk fruit that help drive sweetness, which we love, without the calories.”

Competing in a health-conscious market

Winning Beverage Innovation

Dratt will be speaking at the Beverage Forum in Chicago this week, in a panel discussion titled 'Winning Beverage Innovation'

According to Dratt, beverage brands need to clearly define their product positioning, but be nimble enough to allow for formula adjustments to address the beverage market’s changing regulatory environment. 

“When you look at certifications like organic, non-GMO project verified, gluten-free, kosher, you’ve got all these different certifications and they all have very specific requirements.  We don’t know what the next one will be, but I guarantee there will be another one.”

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