Tea: Make It More Than a Drink

Editor’s Note:It was not that long ago that Americans knew of only two tea types-hot and iced-the former for winter and the latter for summer. Today, Americans know a palette of tea varieties, all of which are consumed any time of year. Further, tea ingredients are expanding beyond beverage into other dairy applications.

Dairy Foods talked to:

Jon Baumgardner, director of marketing,    Aiya America Inc.
Kimberly Carson, director-beverage solutions    group, Sensient Flavors
John Crandall, president, Amelia Bay
Bill Driessen, technical sales manager-Americas,    Taiyo International Inc.
Trudy Genna, laboratory manager, Templar Food Products
Scott Geringer, vice president of business    development, Sensus Flavors
Ana Gumabon, director of R&D, California    Custom Fruits & Flavors
Vincent Kral, manager beverage applications,    Symrise
Mike MacMillan, product development manager-   beverage & dairy flavor systems, SensoryEffects    Flavor Systems
J. Patrick O’Keefe, president, Finlay Tea    Solutions US Inc.
Nuryati Pangestu, research scientist,    Wild Flavors Inc.
Frank Rocco, director of marketing & business    development, Robertet Flavors
Donald Wilkes, president and CEO,    Blue Pacific Flavors
John Wilson, marketing and sales coordinator,    Allen Flavors Inc.

Dairy Foods talked with 14 suppliers of tea ingredients. Here’s what they had to say about the booming tea business.

Dairy Foods: In your opinion, why is there increased consumer interest in ready-to-drink (RTD) tea beverages?

Rocco: Tea is one of the original functional beverages, with a history rich in health and wellness. Yet it is also a beverage that people enjoy consuming for its refreshing taste.

Wilson: After water, tea is the most largely consumed beverage on the planet. Americans welcome traditions from other cultures, particularly when a traditional beverage such as tea is perceived as healthy or life enhancing.

Carson: RTD tea meets the health and wellness needs of consumers both physically and emotionally. Physically, tea is thought to prevent aging of cells and to benefit the immune system. Emotionally it can be used to provide a natural energy boost or can provide calming and relaxation. It is an excellent way to meet the continuing, conflicted need states of consumers.

Pangestu: In the past, RTD tea was marketed more as a refreshment beverage. Now, RTD tea is perceived as a health and wellness beverage. Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the specific antioxidants found in tea such as epigallocatechin gallate (EGCg) and marketers are mentioning, even quantifying them on product labels.

Driessen: Consumer interest in RTD tea grew out of a desire for more choices. As beverage companies set out to develop new products, they learned that consumers wanted natural and healthy ingredients. The thing that sets green tea apart from other ingredients is the vast amount of research that validates the healthy benefits of EGCg and other antioxidants in green tea.

MacMillan: Consumer interest in reducing caloric intake has expanded opportunities to look at beverages that typically are unsweetened. Tea is consumed both sweetened and unsweetened and is also being paired with unique fruit flavors to put a new twist on a basic everyday beverage. We have seen significant increases in requests of white tea beverages because you can compliment it with other fruit flavors such as mango, raspberry, pomegranate, peach and tangerine.  Black teas are also being requested because of the stronger traditionally brewed flavor.

Wilkes: There has been a significant repositioning of the tea category from a refreshment driven beverage to a health and wellness beverage during the past five years. It started with Japanese green tea and was influenced by the science-based research into the functional properties of green tea’s unique grouping of antioxidant compounds, which have been studied for years in Japan for their antioxidant properties as well as potential anti-cancer functionality. As many aging Americans look to combine healthy lifestyle choices with convenience in their daily foods and beverages, unsweetened or lightly sweetened RTD tea drinks offer a healthier alternative to carbonated soft drinks or highly sweetened fruit juice or fortified vitamin water products.

Genna: The challenge to the companies that support the growth of the RTD tea category is to spark interest by educating consumers about tea and all its varieties, much like Starbucks has done with coffee. In a way, the consumer has embarked on armchair traveling by drinking tea from around the world . . . now they are wondering what is their next stop/cup? What color will it be, how will it taste, where does it grow? Will I like it?

Dairy Foods: What are the trends in RTD tea?

Crandall: From a consumer preference standpoint, black tea manufactured by the dairy industry is clearly the sales leader in the supermarket refrigerated RTD tea category and the trend is for continued strong growth. In recent years, the dairy industry began supplying higher-quality refrigerated tea to the supermarket industry and this led to a dramatic increase in refrigerated tea sales. American consumers have historically consumed black tea and the preference for sweetened and unsweetened black tea is expected to continue, even with heightened awareness of green tea. From a RTD perspective, green tea contains about half the caffeine of black tea, which is attractive to many consumers. Further, the demand for white tea has soared recently as tea connoisseurs and lay drinkers are finding white tea varieties more delicate and sweet as compared to some black and green tea varieties.

Kral: Black tea is still the most popular, but there is an increase in green tea beverages and red (rooibos) tea products. Some producers will blend teas in order to introduce a new or more exotic-type tea with something more familiar. Consumers prefer the familiar taste yet would like to have the benefits of some of the other teas. Mate tea could be the next new tea on the horizon.

Baumgardner: Green is the hot pick, even for cold drinks. Tea blends are trendy but it is difficult to maintain desirable taste in a 100% natural formulation, which is what “real” tea drinkers want. All-natural citrus flavors are the ones that seem to work best in green tea blends.

Wilson: While green tea is the most widely respected tea as far as antioxidant properties, many consumers are learning that all teas are derived from the same plant and therefore offer similar antioxidant properties. Green tea is a popular choice but other teas are coming right along. Teas infused with tropical fruits, berries, flowers and essential oils are definitely a growing trend, as well as teas with nutritional enhancements such as superfruits. These beverages maintain all the positive tea properties while offering the consumer more variety.

Genna: Every flavor complements tea in RTD applications. The challenge is to balance the other ingredients to enhance flavor. For instance, Templar created a delightful vanilla rooibos for a customer and to provide the correct backdrop for the gentle vanilla notes our formulators adjusted the sweetener, acid and tea levels.

O’Keefe: The areas where there is growing interest include rooibos and oolong, and beverages that are a blend of tea and fruits. Pomegranate, yumberry and acai are examples of fruits that are high in antioxidants and work very well in tea. Such superfruits not only provide a pleasant flavor, they are very synergistic from a heath/wellness perspective.

Wilkes: There is growing interest in specialty teas from Africa and India. These teas combine well with superfruits. Blue Pacific has recently developed a range of flavors co-branded “hortRealfruit” from New Zealand Plant and Food/Hort Research’s proprietary fruit compound data base that offers some very unique hybrid fresh fruit profiles and creative flavor characteristics for new tea drink concepts. Prototypes include New Zealand Red Kiwiberry Tea, Karaka Blackberry Rooibos, Alpina Green Tea, Gold Kiwi White Tea and New Zealand Golden Queen Peach Tea.

Rocco: Recently we have seen a surge in demand for sweet black tea, which at one time was predominantly a southern-style regional preference. With consumers being so mobile today, what they experience in one area of the country or world, they would like to experience in their own local market.

Driessen: One exciting trend for RTD tea beverages is surprisingly, beverages that do not taste like tea. By using high-purity green tea extracts, formulators can add the healthy antioxidant compounds to beverages that do not have tea taste or color. In other words, product developers can offer products containing the benefits of tea to those consumers that might not like the taste of tea. Oftentimes customers ask how to reduce or remove the bitter flavor found in tea extracts. There are two things to consider. First, the bitterness in green tea is coming mostly from the catechins. Having the bitter taste confirms the presence of these desirable antioxidants. Further, some of the most consumed beverages on the planet-coffee, wine, etc.-have inherent bitter notes. However, one must still be pragmatic and know that most consumers will not find overly astringent/bitter beverages pleasant. Therefore, formulators should include flavors that compliment, such as those from the citrus and berry categories. A nice route to take to arrive at a unique formula is to use some herbal flavors that compliment the tea taste and further the natural message.

Dairy Foods: Please explain what comes in a tea kit, and what different options are available.

Genna: Templar created the concept of tea kits in the early 1970s as a convenience pack for dairies and bottlers at the onset of industrial soluble iced tea. It was necessary to make it as easy as possible to convince bottlers to give it a try. Kits are pre-measured blends of ingredients to make consistent RTD tea.

Kral: Typically kits are customized to the customer’s specifications. They include tea, adjunct flavors or juices, acidulants, extracts . . . whatever the client specifies. The kits can be either liquid based or combined liquid and dry systems. The goal is to make it easy for the bottler to put together their product, while keeping in mind product stability, storage conditions, shelflife, etc. They can be formulated for any type of sweetener. Many of the low- to no-calorie products benefit from utilizing either sweetness-enhancing flavors or masking agents, which can help overcome some of the bitter, metallic, off taste associated with these sweeteners.

Rocco: Kits contain all the ingredients to deliver a finished RTD tea product, with the exception of sugar and water. If the end product is to be a low- or no-calorie beverage, the alternative sweetener of choice is included in the ingredient blend. This prevents measuring errors on the production floor of such high-potency sweeteners.

Wilson: Every processor’s production capabilities and customer base is different. Allen customizes the teas and flavor bases for each processor making their tea uniquely tailored to their specific market.

Crandall: Amelia Bay custom formulates tea extracts to meet each customer’s specifications. Formulations are provided to include any type of sweetener and are designed to meet geographical preferences for sweetness. The company also manufactures zero-calorie tea extracts that are pre-sweetened with artificial sweeteners or, with rebaudioside A (reb-A), which is the natural sweetener that recently received generally recognized as safe recognition by the FDA. 

O’Keefe: Finlays offers a diverse range of products from 100% tea extracts to dry beverage systems for RTD teas. The company has also entered into a joint venture with Pure Circle, the leading supplier of reb-A. This will enable the company to further capitalize on its ability to deliver on the health and wellness proposition. 

Wilkes: Blue Pacific offers complete RTD and foodservice tea kits. They are designed for convenience and low-cost shipping options given many are based on soluble instant tea and flavoring. Custom liquid concentrates are also available and are based on tea extracts, juice and functional ingredients. A new offering is sugar-free, low-calorie and all natural. It is made with reb-A. It also includes a proprietary natural flavor modifier that reduces the reb-A aftertaste and improves the overall mouthfeel, sweetness profile and flavor delivery.

Dairy Foods: How do shelf-stable and refrigerated RTD teas differ?

Kral: Refrigerated RTD teas have a limited shelf life and are typically sold in geographic regions near where they are produced. They are easy to manufacture on typical dairy equipment, requiring only a batching tank with either batch or line pasteurization. They are filled into either single-serve or family-size containers. Shelf-stable RTD teas can be sterilized and hot-filled into various package forms. Shelf-stable chemically preserved teas can also be produced, though usually on a more conventional soda bottling line. Both have about a year shelf life. Shelf-stable RTD teas can also be made using cold pasteurization technology. A special dosing unit is used to inject the product in-line with Velcorin just prior to filling and sealing the container. The Velcorin kills the microbes that can cause spoilage, and then hydrolyzes so it is no longer present in the product. Symrise offers Velcorin technology for certain types of beverage applications.

Wilson: Some consumers prefer refrigerated RTD tea citing its “less processed” qualities. Fluid milk processors are particularly suited to work in this arena with existing equipment and established distribution networks and market channels.

Wilkes: Tea solids and aroma quality is much more critical in a shelf-stable RTD product because of the longer shelflife requirements.

Crandall: Premium-quality tea extracts, which include tea solids from the original leaf, are not adversely affected by pasteurization before bottling.

Baumgardner: Matcha green tea has a shelf life of about a year. It contains a high level of both soluble and insoluble nutrients, which can degrade when anything is done to it to extend shelf life. Thus, it is Aiya’s opinion that shelf-stable matcha green tea drinks are not the most natural option. Refrigerated options are usually the more healthful and natural choice; however, the consumer doesn’t always see it this way.

Dairy Foods: What other dairy applications can be formulated with sufficient tea ingredients to provide a benefit to the consumer.

Genna: The opportunities for spreading the health benefits of tea throughout the dairy category are unlimited. The best approach is to first determine your marketing plan and decide the actual amount of tea ingredients you want in your product as an antioxidant or functional ingredient.

Gumabon: Tea ingredients such as tea powder or tea extract can be used to make a concentrated base and added to yogurt and ice cream, both hard-packed and soft-serve, yogurt drinks, foodservice smoothies and cheesecake. The concentrated bases can be formulated to have enough tea per serving of finished product equivalent to one cup or several cups of tea. 

Wilkes: Blue Pacific has done a significant amount of development work in Asia where tea products have crossed over to yogurt, ice cream and other dairy applications. For example, in Korea the number-one selling ice cream flavor is not vanilla. It’s green tea. Typically, Japanese Macha tea powder is used to make the highest quality green tea ice cream. Other flavor concepts for ice cream with tea include India-influenced chai.

Baumgardner: Consuming 1g to 2g of matcha green tea daily provides the core nutrients for maximum long-term health benefits. This is the amount in a typical cup of ceremonial matcha, and the same amount that has been successfully added to products such as green tea ice cream, where a standard half-cup serving delivers the beneficial amount. Matcha green tea can be used successfully in ice cream, green tea smoothies, green tea yogurt and green tea lattes. It is best to use the highest grade of matcha when citing health benefits such as antioxidant content. This grade is also the most vibrant in its jade green hue and depth of flavor. Though lower grades work in dairy applications, there’s a substantial reduction in nutrition, color and flavor. Further, matcha loses nutritional value when exposed to prolonged high heat, another reason why dairy foods are an ideal delivery vehicle.

MacMillan: SensoryEffects has developed ice cream concepts including flavors with subtle hints of green tea, earl grey and black tea. New beverage and novelty concepts are based on tea and juice blends.

Crandall: An exciting new option is hibiscus extract, which can be used as a natural colorant and flavor enhancer for dairy products and beverages.

O’Keefe: The most common dairy platform is the chai latte tea beverage. Smoothies are another application where green, black and red teas are being used. As a side note, the oddest place I have seen tea used was in a USB stick, as the stick would heat up and release tea aromas.  

Dairy Foods: Do consumers understand that all teas are not created equal?

Rocco: Consumers are becoming more proactive in managing their health, which means that products that deliver added functionality are enjoying growth. Tea is a naturally good-for-you beverage, and most consumers have heard that message. What remains difficult is the development of condition-specific products that require regulatory review.

Driessen: The average person is becoming more educated and aware that the words tea or green tea alone mean very little. Going forward, RTD beverages will show catechin content per serving on the label. This will be a way for consumers to know they are getting a dosage of the compounds they are expecting. The trick for formulators will be to include sufficient levels of catechins to provide real benefits, while keeping the bitterness in check.

Baumgardner: Green tea has been riding a nice steep trend in the past decade of sales growth in all categories. It’s safe to say when choosing between tea products, consumers tend to pick the one containing green tea.

Gumabon: Consumers are getting more educated in the healthful benefits of tea, particularly green tea. Several years ago when California Custom first developed a green tea ice cream base, there were very few customers interested, even from Asian-dense regions. Now, not only are there a lot more requests for green tea bases but also in combination with different fruits.

Wilson: On the whole, consumers are demanding healthier, better-tasting beverage options. Consumers are reading labels more closely and researching more diligently online and in the press. Today’s consumer is more sophisticated than ever in the past. This can be seen directly in the still steady decrease of carbonated soda consumption. The general consensus, accurate or not, is that green tea offers the most health benefits, so many times consumers will reach for green tea for that reason.

Wilkes: Blue Pacific believes that solid science on tea ingredients will continue to create positive consumer interest and will drive tea sales. The problem for most purist and legitimate green tea beverage manufacturers is educating or changing the average consumer’s view that “any green tea still has the health benefits as Japanese green tea.”  Several large beverage marketers have convinced consumers that all green tea beverages provide more health benefits than black tea drinks. The fact is, many of these products don’t have efficacious green tea extract levels to describe them as more functional than black tea beverages.

Dairy Foods: How can RTD tea manufacturers differentiate their product in the marketplace?

Genna: It would be impossible to over emphasize the importance of quality. Good quality, consistent product and little or no artificial color and preservatives are the best tools for success in RTD tea.

O’Keefe: It depends on what a manufacturer is trying to accomplish in the marketplace.  There are some tea extracts that are designed to deliver a specific color. Others are designed for a particular taste. Many marketers are focusing on catechin content. Finlays has recently developed a green tea extract with very high antioxidant content and a reduced bitter profile.

Kral: It depends upon what type of product they want to produce. Teas are available with different levels of polyphenols, come in different taste profiles and are available in a wide range of clarity. A manufacturer has to ask whether they want a clear or cloudy beverage, one with high levels of EGCg, a unique blend of teas, specific flavor or even the inclusion of a superfruit ingredient.

Wilson: Regional tea and flavor combination preferences are one way. Georgia is known for peaches and California for lemons, while the Caribbean cultures love lemongrass and the Pacific Northwest abounds in wonderful berries. As consumers throughout the country look for teas with added health benefits, the superfruits such as goji, acai and sea buckthorne come into play and adding these types of antioxidants can give an attractive spin on more traditional favorites.

Baumgardner: There are many benefits of using quality green tea as an ingredient, and these are easily communicated to consumers. It is a great way to differentiate.

Wilkes: It is possible to validate green tea’s antioxidant value through a credible, third-party seal-of-approval. 

Geringer: By utilizing tea essence, RTD tea manufacturers can differentiate their products through great tea aroma that enhances the beverage experience. Additionally, manufacturers can deliver specific levels of tea catechins as a means of allowing the consumer to identify the polyphenolic impact of the RTD tea.

Crandall: Amelia Bay has proprietary technology for refining tea solids during the extraction process direct from the tea leaf. This process dramatically increases the brewed-quality taste and provides the ability for dairy processors to declare “brewed iced tea” on the label. Some dairies steep tea leaves in hot water in an attempt to appear fresh-brewed. This process is fraught with complications including clouding, accelerated degradation in tea taste and higher manufacturing cost. Amelia Bay’s process eliminates the undesirable tea solids that precipitate to the bottom of the bottle and other solids that cause clouding and short-term degradation in tea taste. This extraction technology enhances the health benefits of tea by offering adjustable ranges for polyphenols from 30mg to 200mg per 8-oz serving.

Dairy Foods: What types of tea ingredients are available to dairy processors?

Gumabon: California Custom makes tea bases by putting tea powder or tea extract in a heat-processed system with sweeteners, stabilizers and other customer-preferred ingredients. They can be made to a certain density and thickness and work in fluid milk processing equipments. Since they are heat-processed, they can be added before or after milk pasteurization. R&D recently developed several versions of green tea base that allow marketers to claim that a cup of green tea yogurt or a scoop of green tea ice cream has enough antioxidants equivalent to two cups of drinking tea.

Geringer: Sensus offers liquid concentrates and extracts that provide a fresh and aromatic top notes. Fluid milk processors can add Sensus tea flavor ingredients at the mix tank and process similar to their current flavored milks to produce lattes or blended RTD beverages. Because Sensus utilizes a unique steam extraction process to produce its portfolio of tea flavor ingredients, finished RTD teas can be labeled “all natural” and drinks made with the tea concentrates can be labeled “brewed tea.”

Baumgardner: Aiya’s matcha is made from stone granite ground tea leaves called tencha, a shade grown green tea. Most other greens teas are air pulverized, and this method destroys nutritional content. The highest-quality leaves are handpicked and harvested once a year around April. Aiya’s core ingredient line consists of four grades and a pre-mix product for easy application and mixing. The highest grade is vibrant in color and works well in latte and ice cream applications. It has a high level of antioxidants and amino acids, as well as a full suite of nutrients such as vitamins and fiber, enabling marketers to make a range of product claims. The pre-mix contains matcha, fruit pectin and natural cane sugar. The pre-mix is best for blended drinks such as smoothies.

MacMillan: SensoryEffects has developed brewed tea flavor bases that mimic fresh brewed tea. R&D is working to incorporate vitamins and nutraceuticals into these bases to satisfy the demand for ease of use while offering functional benefits.

Pangestu: Wild Flavors has developed proprietary extraction technology to remove herbal tea notes and reduce bitterness of tea extracts while maintaining the health benefits. This enables addition to dairy foods, where sometimes there are challenges with bitterness and astringency.

Driessen: Taiyo produces green tea extracts. Extracts are not tea leaves nor tea leaf powder. Instead, the tea leaves are used to make an infusion. The soluble compounds that exist in the tea leaves are extracted into the infusion liquid. Then the infusion is concentrated and spray dried into a powder. Using this basic concept of producing an extract, the manufacturing process can be varied to produce an array of extracts. This includes green tea extract that gives the flavor and color of green tea. These extracts typically contain 20% to 40% polyphenols. The other 60% to 80% offers flavor and color of the particular tea leaves that were used to make the infusion. Another product is the extract used for the purpose of fortifying the finished food or beverage with EGCg. This type of ingredient typically contains more than 80% catechins and very little green tea color or flavor. The inherent bitterness of catechins is present, but due to the high level of purity, the dosage is lower, so the bitterness can be easily kept at acceptable levels.  

Tea Lattes Get "Starbuckized"

If Starbucks can take oatmeal and make it cool again, imagine what this coffee powerhouse can do for tea-milk beverages, a combination that has been very slow to catch on in the United States.

The Seattle-based company has big plans for tea with the recent rollout of a number of new tea drinks. Tazo Full-Leaf Tea Lattes are a soothing combination of steamed milk and Tazo tea, sweetened to taste. Tazo Tea Infusions invigorate the senses with premium Tazo black tea steamed with fruit juices.

There are three latte varieties. Consumers choose if they want 2% or nonfat milk. The black tea and milk offering has hints of dark caramel, malt and black cherries. Vanilla rooibos is a distinct, naturally caffeine-free blend of the legendary red bush (rooibos) tea of South Africa, fragrant Tahitian vanilla and sweet spices, all steamed with milk.  Finally there’s London Fog, which is a delicate, floral blend of fragrant black tea leaves flavored with the citrusy essence of Italian bergamot and a hint of lavender. The combo is sweetened with vanilla syrup and topped off with steamed milk.