They say, “You are what you eat.” Of course, that also could be applied to what you drink. That’s because when dining out, consumers are looking to beverages to provide certain experiences—whether that’s a better-for-you boost or pure entertainment. Both trends are influencing new beverage innovation.

Here’s to your health! Health and wellness is common thread driving menu innovation, although there’s a constant evolution of what falls under this umbrella term. Consumer beliefs are shaped and shifted by doctor’s warnings, celebrity lifestyle endorsements, easy access to information online, and even conversations on social media. And because these messages change frequently, foodservice operators—and their beverage manufacturer partners—need to be adaptable. 

While there’s no doubt that consumers are focused on their physical health, the modern consumer has a holistic view of wellness that includes emotional and environmental wellbeing. Foodservice operators have a lot of opportunity to appeal to various need states by offering beverages that are healthier, create a unique experience, reduce environmental impact, or incorporate all three for the “holy grail” of menu options.


Health-Forward Ingredients

Finding healthy options at restaurants can be challenging. Knowing this, many operators are improving their menu item nutritional profiles to attract more patrons. Restaurants are offering more beverages (1) that considered as clean label, (2) that have less sugar and fewer calories, or (3) that add value via functional ingredients.

Beverages are some of the biggest culprits of high sugar content. Understandably, many foodservice establishments are offering low-sugar options or are reducing the sugar content in current products.

Health-focused fast casual restaurants like Sweetgreen make it their mission to help consumers make better decisions when eating out. The chain offers a variety of juices that range in sugar content—all with less sugar than a regular fountain soda—such as a Lemon Fresca, which has only 4g of sugar; or the Kale Gingerade with 15g of sugar.

Jamba Juice is taking the latter approach and rebranding as Jamba to position the smoothie chain as more healthful. Jamba will expand their menu to include items that have no added sugars, functional ingredients, and dairy alternative milks.

Jamba isn’t the only brand using plant-based ingredients to position menu items as “better for you.” Many consumers beyond vegetarians and vegans consider plant-based food and beverage to be healthier and more sustainable than animal-related products. As a result, plant-based options are proliferating on menus.

Dairy alternative milks are the most common plant-based beverage option and coffee shops have served as a platform to introduce consumers to the many options available. Almond, coconut and soy are the leading dairy alternative options, but several third-wave coffee shops offer a wider selection—such as cashew, macadamia, pistachio, hemp and oat milks.

Restaurants and smoothie chains also are more creative with their dairy alternative options. Hummus and Pita Co. launched a vegan, dairy-free, and gluten-free hummus shake made of chickpeas, tahini, frozen bananas, dates, almond milk, vanilla and cinnamon. The sweet treat is high in protein and fiber comes in indulgent flavors including Chocolate, Strawberry, Pistachio, and Butter Pecan.

Another way to help consumers boost overall health is for foodservice establishments to incorporate functional ingredients into menu items or to offer them as an add-on for an extra boost. Some of the most “in-demand” benefits consumers want from beverages are increased relaxation, immunity, energy, digestion, focus, and a beauty enhancement. Ingredients such as certain mushrooms, collagen, MCT oil or ghee, beetroot powder, and charcoal are being used everywhere—from juice to lattes—to deliver those benefits.

Of course, what’s en vogue across restaurant menus nationwide is to offer cannabis—and more specifically, CBD—as a functional ingredient. For an additional charge, many boutique restaurant operators are offering CBD infusions in beverages such as coffee, tea, smoothies and cocktails.

Because there still is uncertainty around the future legality of cannabis, many larger restaurant companies are reluctant to add it to menus. Meanwhile, some manufacturer brands like Ben & Jerry’s have been outspoken about incorporating CBD into products if it is approved for use in food and beverage.

Even cocktails are being enhanced with functional ingredients and positioned as better for you. Craft cocktails at Please in Cincinnati are inspired by the health and juice bar culture. These drinks include ingredients such as turmeric, elderflower, and drinking vinegars. Turmeric, which has anti-inflammatory properties, is a staple on cocktail menus because of its health benefits. Moreover, it also as Instagram appeal because mixologists love its bright yellow color. Blue spirulina is another functional and colorful superfood now incorporated into cocktails. Chicago’s Beatnik restaurant offers the rum-based My Boy Blue, which uses “Blue Majik” (derived from spirulina).

While many consumers are looking to better-for-you options at bars, some consumers are limiting their alcohol intake or avoiding it altogether. Millennials account for 32% of spirits consumed in the United States and are at the forefront of the “sober curious” movement.

Bars and restaurants are responding to the decline in alcohol consumption by incorporating premium mocktails on menus. These include non-alcoholic craft beers and spirits like those from the UK’s Seedlip Ltd., as well as concoctions with sophisticated flavor profiles like blood orange and peach bitters or cascara and hops. Getaway in Brooklyn, New York is an entirely alcohol-free bar that offers mocktails like the “Lone Wolf and Shrub,” which is a mix of rhubarb shrub, lime juice, elderflower syrup and basil.


Enhance the Experience

When menu items offer a unique experience, it can give restaurant patrons a feeling of excitement and adventure. These types of experiences also are beneficial for the foodservice operators because they often come at a premium and lead to free advertising, via social media feeds.

One way to draw in customers is to offer a unique sensory experience. Barton G. is a growing chain with locations in Miami Beach, Los Angeles and Chicago. The firm prides itself on creating awe-inspiring sensory experiences that delight customers and have them reach for their cameras.

Craft cocktails include sophisticated twists like Sriracha Lemonade, Grilled Meyer Lemon, and Champagne Nitro Popsicles, but what sets them apart is that the drinks are chilled with nitrogen and served on trays related to their respective themes. These over-the-top beverage experiences have resulted in significant social media buzz and more than 30,000 instances of a hashtag with the company’s name on Instagram.

Also popular are visually appealing delivery methods that impart flavor. The Aviary in Chicago prides itself on cocktail experiences—such as one where you break an ice egg to enjoy the drink inside; or where you blow through a glass pipe to mix components of the beverage. An increasingly popular method for adding a multi-sensory experience is incorporating culinary preparation methods like smoke to enhance the experience. Pouring a beverage out of a decanter filled with smoke is visually striking and adds mesquite, woody notes to the cocktail.

Although elaborate sensory experiences are certainly enticing, there are less extravagant ways to excite consumers. Texture plays an important role in the beverage experience and enhancing mouthfeel adds complexity that can even change the perception of attributes such as sweetness in beverages. Carbonation and nitrogen infusions are the most common ways to incorporate texture, but whipped beverages like Peet’s Coffee Cold Brew Fog also are appearing on menus.

Another menu item popping up in boba shops across the nation is cheese tea, an iced tea topped with a fluffy, sweet and salty topping made of soft cream cheese, condensed or evaporated milk, and whipping cream.

Cheese tea may sound strange, but proponents of the beverage suggest the sweet and salty creaminess of the milk foam compliments the aromatic tea flavor. The fluffy white topping is a hit on Instagram as well – the hashtag “cheese tea” has been used nearly 60,000 times, which represents a more than 200% increase from June 2018 to June 2019. Starbucks has taken a similar approach with the Cloud Macchiato, an iced caramel or cinnamon macchiato topped with a light and fluffy cold foam made from egg whites and rice protein.

The beverage industry is constantly evolving, and foodservice operators must be able to respond quickly to new trends to satisfy consumer expectations. The health and wellness movement is expected to continue and accelerate, but what consumers consider “better for you” is a moving target.

Generally, less is more when it comes to calories, sugar, and number of ingredients but brands can enhance the user experience by incorporating exciting flavors, textures, colors, and functional ingredients. Beverages that offer an extraordinary experience also benefit from these principals, though focus is more on sensory attributes and production value to appeal to the adventurous consumer.

Originally appeared in the August, 2019 issue of Prepared Foods as You Are What You—Drink.