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Natural Products Expo West 2022: Highlights of Beverage Innovation

3/24/2022
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Natural Products Expo West, the US’s largest exhibition of natural foods, beverages, supplements and personal care products, was held from March 8-12, 2022, at the Anaheim Convention Center in California. Expo West 2022 was the first in-person show held in two years due to the global pandemic, with over 60,000 exhibitors and attendees. The convention is the premier showcase of independent natural brands seeking distributors or retailers, of natural launches from major producers, as well as a meeting point for ingredients and packaging suppliers, food scientists and industry investors.

Packaged drinks are always a focal point of the Expo, with a wide variety of enhanced seltzers, juice shots, tea and coffee innovations on display. This held particularly true in 2022, with an outsized presence for functional drinks, further blurring the already murky line between dietary supplements and refreshment beverages and underscoring the importance of the liquid and powder formats as preferred delivery platforms for nutrients and vitamins among US consumers.

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                                        Image 1: Expo West North Hall

The uncertainty of the last year and the growing appeal of natural products in mainstream conventional channels were both factors reflected in the types of innovations on display in March. Rather than entirely new ventures and concepts, beverages this year sought a new twist on the familiar: established flavours, with new interpretations of established need-states (particularly gut health, energy and lifestyle hydration), through distinctive formats, new champion ingredients or sustainable pack types.

Immunity is still everywhere

Even as pandemic restrictions begin to ease nationwide in the US, there is seemingly no slowdown in immune support-positioned beverages. Fortification of seltzer, soda and juice with vitamin C, vitamin D and zinc remains an extremely popular avenue for innovation, with a number of brands introducing a sparkling, functional, low sugar product extension to their portfolio. These include Teaonic Fresh Pop, a new launch from the popular US Teaonic functional tea brand.

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                                           Image 2: Teaonic Fresh Pop seltzer

Combining digestive health claims and immune support positioning is a clear trend within beverage innovation in 2022. Lighter, sparkling water kefir beverages and seltzers with probiotic strains were popular at the Expo, with brands keen to trade on the importance of gut health and the microbiome to overall immune health. Prebiotic fibre may have temporarily displaced probiotic cultures as the key signifier ingredient in digestive health drinks. Operating in this space alongside category leader Olipop (and new at the show in 2022) is Turveda, a gut health “super soda” combining prebiotic fibre (20% of DV), fruit juice and traditional Ayurvedic ingredients such as ashwagandha and turmeric, with a much bolder, spicy flavour profile than traditional functional seltzers.

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        Image 3: Turveda Prebiotic Super Soda

The functional future of beverages: new ingredients and benefits

While new twists on the familiar were the order of the day, several products pushed into less familiar functional terrain. This includes utilising the superfood moringa, a leaf rich in vitamin C, potassium, and a variety of other essential minerals and vitamins, but underutilised in US food and beverage innovation. While available in a powder supplement format for some time, Mori Leaf has brought to the market a brewed, ready-to-drink version of moringa in lightly flavoured unsweetened fruit flavours.

Good Idea Drink, created by the co-founder of Oatly plant-based milk, is new to the US market since 2021, and also currently available in Sweden. The product blends five amino acids, zinc, electrolytes and chromium in a sparkling, fruit flavoured format. The product offers one of the most unique functional claims among beverages at the show, backed by clinical research, of helping to balance blood sugar spikes after consuming food by 20-30%.

Adaptogens and functional botanicals remain as popular as ever as in 2022, along with bolder and less familiar fruit flavours, particularly the Japanese citrus yuzu. Moshi Yuzu Sparkling beverage from Brooklyn Food & Beverage was among the best-tasting debuts at the show. Mushrooms remain another vital area of exploration for beverage innovators: Odyssey Elixir, nominated for the NEXTY Awards at the show, produces a sparkling mushroom-based tonic containing Lion’s Mane and chaga, plus ginseng and 85mg of caffeine, with an energy and focus/nootropic positioning. Four Sigmatic was awarded a Best New Functional Food or Beverage prize for a functional creamer, a coconut-based powder with Lion’s Mane, cordyceps and reishi mushrooms, intended to provide an additional functional boost to coffee.

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                                                                    Image 4: Good Idea Sparkling Water

The next evolution of functional innovation will also involve familiar ingredients utilised in an better way – notably CBD and other cannabinoids, where the early first wave of novelty innovation (circa-2016/2017) has given way to brands with better ingredients, quality control and improved flavour profiles. Some of the best at the Expo included Cloudwater, a wellness seltzer with 25mg of hemp-derived CBD and Recess, combining CBD and adaptogens in a growing range of products (now including powders and non-CBD adaptogenic sparkling waters). The UK brand Trip, founded in 2018 but new to the US market, offers a seltzer with 15mg of CBD isolate in an elegant, recyclable slimline can, and is infused with other botanicals, such as ginseng and l-theanine.

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                                                     Image 5: Trip Hemp Infused Sparkling Water

‘Regenerative’ and sustainable drinks

‘Regenerative’ business practices within the natural industry was a running theme across categories at Expo West. The concept of sustainable business practices continues to gain traction across channels, with major suppliers finally committing to conversion to recycled PET materials and alternatives as independent brands continue to raise standards for the wider industry. While the elimination of a single-use mentality within packaged drinks is the ultimate aim, several brands are taking a more incremental approach to promote consumer packaging reuse, particularly within the thriving water category. Brands such as Open Water (formerly Green Sheep) offer an alternative to single-use plastics by bottling still and sparkling water in reusable, 100% recyclable aluminium cans with screw-top lids, intended for a week or more of further refill and use after initial consumption.

The sustainable ethos within beverages in 2022 now extends beyond packaging: Canadian cold press juice producer Loop has created a beverage brand centred on the elimination of food waste. This includes the use of discarded fruits and vegetables in the production of packaged juices, and the hydrosol waste of discarded fruits in the production of a range of probiotic tonics. The company even markets a line of gin produced from discarded potato peelings.

Embracing new formats and not simply new packaging materials will also be key to reducing waste within the industry. Dissolvable powder and tablet format supplements, such as the wildly successful Athletic Greens D2C supplement brand, are increasingly popular with US consumers. One of the largest, Nuun (acquired by Nestlé Health Sciences in 2021), introduced new flavour-forward, lower electrolyte powder tablets at the show, extending its range of performance hydration products for athletes to more everyday lifestyle options in the same convenient format.

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Image 6: Open Water (right) and Path Water (left), purified water in aluminium cans

To learn more about trends in functional beverage innovation, explore Euromonitor International’s report Striving for Wellbeing in Drinks & Tobacco.

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