Ringing in the New Year is a time for reflection and re-evaluation of life choices. Many consumers start by setting goals for self-improvement to make the coming year better than the last. After a tremulous 2020, improving overall health and wellness is at the top of the list.

The coronavirus pandemic changed lives overnight, and even though it has been a year since the onset of the pandemic consumers are still adjusting to the “new normal.” It changed the way consumers work, shop, socialize and entertain—and all this has resulted in new shopping habits and attitudes. Many consumers are working remotely, so convenience is not as much of a priority as it was at the start of 2020. Consumers also are eating out less and prioritizing experiences that can be created at home. 

Despite disruption to daily routines, trends have not changed drastically. This is partially because trends often start in foodservice and many restaurants have been forced to shut down or limit services to carry out and delivery. Even fine dining establishments pivoted their business models. Their goal is just to survive by simplifying menu items and making offerings accessible to larger audiences.  

Although there were not many new trends established in the consumer packaged goods space, several emerging trends accelerated because of the pandemic. There’s ample demand for products that promote health and wellness, especially products that improve overall health, boost immunity, increase energy and alleviate stress. 

Improving Nutrition
Consumers understand that what they put into the body affects overall health—so there’s even greater interest in products with better-for-you attributes. FMCG Gurus surveyed 23,000 consumers across 18 countries and 79% reported that they are trying to eat and drink healthier since the onset of the pandemic. 

Brands are responding to demand for better-for-you products by incorporating macronutrients such as protein, fiber and fat into beverages—all while reducing sugar and calories.

Protein is a mainstream ingredient that can be found in products across categories. Brands now are competing by incorporating as much protein as possible—and combining it with other functional ingredients—so consumers get more functional “bang” for the buck. 

Brands also are innovating in the protein space by expanding their plant-based portfolio. Plant-based products have been blowing up since the onset of the pandemic because many consumers perceive them to be healthier and more sustainable than animal products. According to FMCG Gurus, 23% of consumers reported increasing their consumption of plant-based products since the onset of the pandemic. 

PepsiCos’s Naked Juice Co.  added a plant-based option to its line of protein enhanced fruit smoothies. Officials said these are the first plant-based fruit smoothies to be launched by a major player and they offer 18g of a plant-based protein blend.  

Take Two Foods, Portland, Ore., introduced one of last year’s most unique plant-based products. The brand launched a four-item line of dairy alternatives that incorporate spent barley that’s upcycled from beer brewing. For the record, the 40oz barley milks deliver 5g to 8g of protein (depending on variety). Interestingly, the brand’s Chef’s Blend SKU is the first dairy alternative to be positioned as a product for culinary use, such as cooking savory dishes and sweet treats.

Consumers also are also exploring products with fiber and healthy fats because they are suggested to improve heart health, support a healthy microbiome, promote immunity and aid with weight loss. Healthy fats may also improve cognitive function and increase energy. 

Some of the most en vogue healthy fats are medium chain triglycerides (MCTs), healthy fats typically sourced from coconut and palm kernel oils. Many consumers are familiar with MCTs because they are a popular ingredient in keto-friendly products, but they also have garnered interest from other audiences because of their suggested health benefits. Koia launched a line of keto-friendly plant-based smoothies enhanced with 9g of MCT oil. This January saw All Market Brands., New York, N.Y., introduce Vita Coco Boosted waters enhanced with MCT, caffeine and vitamins. 

Fiber has been incorporated into products for years, but there’s been renewed interest in this essential nutrient. That’s because more consumers are aware of the relationship between a healthy microbiome and overall wellbeing. Beverages enhanced with gut-friendly ingredients such as apple cider vinegar, probiotics, prebiotics, and other dietary fibers are considered cross-functional because they are suggested to improve digestion and boost immune cells. Prebiotics are a type of fiber that are common in beverages and are typically delivered through ingredients such as chicory root (inulin), apple cider vinegar, dandelion root and flaxseed. 

RSP Nutrition Staging, Miami Gardens, Fla., introduced a nutrient rich, ready-to-drink meal replacement shake that incorporates prebiotic fiber from chicory root, MCTs as well as fruits and vegetables. 

Brands also are using prebiotics to add a healthy twist to carbonated soft drinks (CSDs). During the last couple of years there have been several launches of better-for-you carbonated soft drinks enhanced with gut-friendly ingredients. Olipop enhances their sodas with prebiotic fiber from chicory root and Poppi incorporates apple cider vinegar into their line of low-sugar CSDs.

In addition to incorporating key nutrients into products, sugar reduction and replacement continues to be a top priority for food and beverage manufacturers. Brands are introducing low and no sugar options and experimenting with sweetener options like stevia, monk fruit and allulose.

Allulose, a rare type of rare sugar that naturally occurs in small quantities in fruit and other plants like wheat, jackfruit, figs and raisins, is a novel sweetener that has started being incorporate into beverages within the last couple of years. It is only about 70% as sweet as table sugar, though, so most brands combine it with other natural sweeteners such as stevia or monk fruit. 

Humm Kombucha launched one of the most innovative zero-sugar options last year: a shelf-stable kombucha that is fermented until the sugar is gone and is then sweetened with a combination of monk fruit and allulose. Other brands incorporating allulose into beverages include Day Trip, Taika and Wet Hydration. 

Thirst for Function
Functional beverages can offer a range of health benefits, so it’s not surprising that demand for products that provide an extra boost has increased. According to the Hartman Group’s 2020 report on Functional Food & Beverage Supplements, nearly 90% of U.S. adult consumers are seeking out foods, beverages and supplements with functional benefits. Additionally, 29% of consumers reported consuming more functional foods and beverages because of COVID-19. 

Anxiety about getting sick is especially high right now, so consumers are interested in products that boost immunity. In response there’s been a huge boom in launches of immune boosting products in nearly every beverage category and format.  

Vitamins and minerals have been front and center in immune boosting products because they are a familiar, accessible and generally inexpensive way to deliver health benefits to mainstream consumers. The most common nutrients in immunity beverages are vitamin C, D and zinc because they are high in antioxidants and work as an anti-inflammatory. They often also are combined with other functional ingredients for a bigger boost.

Water has been an especially popular category for incorporating immune-boosting enhancements. Propel, Flow, Cloud Water and Talking Rain Essentials launched enhanced waters with vitamin C and/or zinc as well as other vitamins and minerals.

Other popular ingredients in immunity beverages include turmeric, ginger, probiotics, prebiotics; as well as superfoods such as elderberry, aronia berry and acerola cherry. Elderberry is the rising star of immunity beverages because it is inherently rich in several key nutrients including vitamin C, dietary fiber and antioxidants. 

Uncle Matt’s Organic said its new Ultimate Immune product combines orange and elderberry juices so that it’s jam-packed with vitamins and minerals. Moji’s Inc. also expanded its Weller portfolio beyond CBD products with an elderberry-enhanced sparkling beverage. Officials said they were motivated by increased consumer interest in immune-boosting products due to the pandemic.

In addition to products that promote a healthy body, consumers also want products that promote a healthy mind. Stress, fatigue and burnout are serious issues for many consumers because of the pandemic, so they are turning to products that promote energy and focus as well as relaxation and sleep. According to the Hartman group, 16% of consumers are taking supplements to manage anxiety and 22% are using them to improve sleep.

Consumers have been showing interest in L-theanine, an amino acid that has a wide range of mental health benefits. It’s been shown to improve relaxation, focus, cognitive function and sleep. Green tea is naturally rich in L-theanine and often is the source of its content in products, but brands also may fortify products using other sources. Pepsi’s latest launch, Driftwell, is enhanced with L-theanine and magnesium to promote sleep. The mood boosting amino also is fortified into new beverages like Feel, Zenify and Phocus.

Adaptogens (non-toxic herbs and roots) also are recommended to improve mood, energy and focus and they have become a buzzword in the industry. However, according to Mintel, only about 4% of Americans are currently consuming functional food and beverages enhanced with adaptogens. Still, they are gaining traction in the natural products market and wellness brands such as Free Rain, WellWell and Recess have launched adaptogenic beverages within the last few years. 

Flavor with a Purpose
Consumers have been drawn to the familiar since the beginning of the pandemic, so true-to-fruit and nostalgic flavors have been popular for new product launches. Variations of citrus flavors (orange, lemon, lime, grapefruit) and berry are some of the most popular true-to-fruit flavors. 

Even so, brands also are branching out from these tried-and-true flavors to differentiate products and appeal to changing consumer palates. Brands are incorporating familiar but underrepresented flavors such as melon, apple and pear.

Flavors that trigger pleasant feelings of nostalgia also are popular because they provide comfort and contribute to emotional wellbeing during times of stress. Additionally, reminiscing about childhood favorites evokes feelings of fun and excitement. 

Nostalgic flavors reminiscent of candies, cakes and frozen treats have been used in products across categories, but they are especially popular in sports, energy and protein drinks. For example, these flavors include cotton candy, peach rings, snow cone, sherbet and birthday cake.
Botanical flavors are flourishing because they are associated with health benefits. Ginger and turmeric are common in immunity beverages because they add flavor and function. Flavors such as lavender and chamomile are very soothing and they often are incorporated into relaxation beverages. Combinations of botanical and true-to-fruit flavors—such as Strawberry Basil and Watermelon Mint—also are common. They add sophistication and nuance, which makes products appear more premium.

Globally inspired flavors are especially desirable because they connect consumers to other cultures and are a way to “travel” without leaving home. Tropical flavors from Latin America and citrus fruits from Asia and the Mediterranean are gaining traction. Flavors such as blood orange and dragon fruit are established in beverages and used in products across categories. Emerging flavors often are combined with mainstream flavors, such as Strawberry Guava, Pineapple Passionfruit and Orange Yuzu.

Although there appears to be an end in sight to the pandemic, the effects it has had on the food and beverage industry will be felt for years to come. As consumers continue to deal with disruptions caused by the pandemic, they will seek out products that are familiar, fun and support overall health. Attributes like natural, clean label, nutrient-dense and sustainable will have mass appeal and there is plenty of opportunity for brands to support more personalized goals through functional products.

Holly McHugh is a marketing associate at Imbibe. Imbibe, Niles, Ill., is a beverage development company focused on the formulation, customization and commercialization of cutting-edge beverage products.