For the most part, ready-to-drink (RTD) tea has always been “pure and simple,” one of the top trends of the new decade. This has helped the category stay grounded during these tough economic times. In fact, for some marketers, their RTD tea business is thriving thanks to tea’s healthful halo and consumers’ pursuit of wellness through food and beverage selection.

Right on trend

Tea is one of the few beverage choices to make economic sense to consumers. Of course, milk is another.

“The outlook for 2010 is best viewed with guarded optimism. Consumer food and beverage choices will reflect the latest social and demographic trends, while also continuing to show financial restraint when it comes to where consumers shop for food and drink, where they dine and the item and meal selections they make,” says Don Montuori, publisher of the hot-off-the-presses report Food Flavors and Ingredients Outlook 2010 from Packaged Facts, Rockville, Md.

Packaged Facts predicts that one of the more enduring trends coming out of the recession will be simplification in all facets of life, food included. In the coming year, more food and beverage manufacturers are expected to jump on the product reformulation bandwagon, offering new products with a reduced number of ingredients and substitutions that look less like chemicals and more like ingredients that convey the message that the products are healthier, fresher, more natural and better tasting. Most RTD teas have always been there, which is why consumers are more willing to delve into their pockets to purchase an iced tea rather than a can of cola.

A December 2009 Packaged Facts report entitled Tea and Ready-to-Drink Tea in the U.S.: Retail, Foodservice and Consumer Trends shows that for the past few years, RTD tea has been the brightest star in the tea firmament. The report cites data from Chicago-based Information Resources Inc. for supermarkets, drugstores and mass merchandisers other than Wal-Mart. The data show the two components of the RTD tea segment - shelf-stable canned and bottled tea, and refrigerated tea - posting 12% and 15% compound annual growth rates (CAGR) from 2006 to 2009, compared with the 0.1% CAGR of bags/loose tea and instant tea mixes.

As a result of the economic downturn, however, after several years of remarkable growth, canned and bottled tea - the largest RTD component - hit a plateau, declining slightly in 2008 and rising less than 1% in 2009 following stellar growth of 27% in 2006 and 23% in 2007, according to the report. Although not quite as severely, the fortunes of refrigerated tea have also declined, from 29% growth in 2006 to 6% growth in 2009. On the other hand, sales of bags/loose tea ticked up a bit after two years of decline, growing 1% in 2008 and 3% in 2009 as tea lovers converted (at least temporarily) to this less convenient - but also much less expensive - option.

Joe Simrany, president of New York-based Tea Association of the United States, expects sales of RTD tea to surpass the growth rate of bottled water in the near future. And analysts at Beverage Marketing Corp. (BMC), New York, estimate that despite the economy, RTD tea retail sales will continue to hold their ground. “We’re projecting modest growth for the category in the years ahead,” says Gary Hemphill, senior vice president at BMC. “The products are well positioned for the consumer seeking healthy refreshment.”

The dairy angle

Dairy processors are most interested in the refrigerated RTD iced tea business, which continues to see increased activity in terms of new players, new products and increased distribution. For example, in preparation for the summer iced tea season, this February, Smith Dairy Products Co., Orrville, Ohio, introduced Peach Tea, a ready-to-drink beverage available through grocers’ refrigerated case that can be served hot or cold.

“Our new Peach Tea can take the chill off the coldest morning or quench the thirst on the hottest afternoon,” says Penny Baker, director of marketing. “The flavor of perfectly ripened peaches complements the tea background and results in a delicious beverage.”  

Smith’s Peach Tea contains no preservatives and weighs in at just 100 calories per 8-ounce serving. Peach Tea joins Smith’s Southern Style Sweet Tea and Sweet Tea with Lemon, and is a bargain at $2.09 per gallon.

Indeed, adding flavors to RTD tea is a trend that continues to evolve, with many beverage developers pursuing the use of superfruit tea flavors. (See this month’s Ingredient Technology Q&A on p. 72.)

“The unusual flavors, high-antioxidant content and associated health benefits of superfruits continue to win consumers over, spanning many food and beverage categories and resonating especially well in the RTD tea market,” says Montuori. “By including superfruits in their products, tea marketers can kill two birds with one stone, adding ‘a taste of the exotic’ to their beverages and parlaying in added health benefits, while also ramping up their products’ competitive appeal vis-à-vis other beverage categories.”

According to Datamonitor, New York, pomegranate leads the ranks of superfruits in the tea category, followed by acai, blueberry, cranberry and goji. On the other hand, mangosteen, yumberry, noni and yuzu have yet to make a significant mark.

 “Exotic flavors that embrace a good-for-you positioning are driving the latest flavor trends in the broader beverage market, and this trend has especially resonated with RTD tea marketers, who have long promoted the healthy attributes of tea,” Montuori says. “The multiple healthful properties of tea remain a primary value-added feature and marketing positioning that gives tea a competitive edge over many other beverage types, including soft drinks, bottled water and coffee.”

In Packaged Facts’ February 2009 online poll of 2,600 adults, when prompted with mention of specific product types, 80% of consumers indicated that they had purchased beverage products within the last 12 months specifically for their distinctive nutritional benefits, with green tea beverages (42%) appearing in the top three after orange juice and cranberry juice, and with black tea (20%) coming in at number six.

“During the down economy consumers have been increasingly focusing on self care in order to avoid becoming ill, and the trend whereby marketers are positioning tea even more heavily than usual on its healthful properties is apparent in the many new functional tea products hitting the market,” he concludes.

The many benefits of tea

Tea consumption has long been linked to numerous health benefits, including claims that tea protects against heart disease, stroke, cancer, and more. What makes tea good for the body is its high level of antioxidants, some of which are called polyphenols, flavonoids and catechins, and all of which take on the free radicals in the body and prevent them from harming healthy cells.

Green tea contains the highest levels of antioxidants, somewhere between 30% and 40% of water-extractable polyphenols, while black tea (green tea that has been oxidized by fermentation) contains between 3% and 10%. Oolong tea is semi-fermented tea and is somewhere between green and black tea. The four primary polyphenols found in fresh tea leaves are epigallocatechin gallate, epigallocatechin, epicatechin gallate and epicatechin.

While studies abound for the potential health benefits of tea consumption, questions remain about the bioavailability of the compounds they contain. “Coffee and tea are two of the most commonly consumed beverages in the world and thus represent a significant opportunity to positively affect disease risk and outcomes globally,” wrote Mario Ferruzzi from Purdue University in a recent paper in Physiology & Behavior (doi:10.1016/j.physbeh.2010.01.035).

This paper provides an overview of the phenolic composition of coffee and tea in the context of how processing and composition might influence phenolic profiles and bioavailability of individual phenolic components. Specifically, the impact of beverage formulation, the extent and type of processing and the influence of digestion on stability, bioavailability and metabolism of bioactive phenolics from tea and coffee are discussed. The impact of co-formulation with ascorbic acid and other phytochemicals are discussed as strategies to improve absorption of these health-promoting phytochemicals. “A better understanding of how the beverage composition impacts phenolic profiles and their bioavailability is critical to development of beverage products designed to deliver specific health benefits,” wrote Ferruzzi. (For more information on the potential health benefits associated with coffee consumption, read the February 2010 edition of Dairy Product Innovations accessible via

The majority of science on tea has looked at green tea, which is quickly becoming the tea of choice for health-conscious consumers, with U.S. tea drinkers preferring green tea with lower flavor and bitterness intensity, according to a new study in the Journal of Food Science (doi:10.1111/j.1750-3841.2009.01503.x), published by the Institute of Food Technologists, Chicago.

The tea plant, Camellia sinesis, has many varieties, resulting in diverse green teas from various countries. In addition, processing methods - roasting, steaming and a combination of the two - directly impact the appearance and flavor of the end product. Researchers from Drexel University and Kansas State University examined differences in acceptability of commonly available loose-leaf and bagged green teas available from Japan, Korea and China to determine which green tea flavor characteristics appealed to the American consumer.

A total of six green tea samples from China, Korea and Japan were used. Three types of green loose leaf teas and three types of bagged green teas were chosen from each country. Six grams of loose leaf teas were placed in 300 milliliters of water at 70°C and brewed for two minutes. Single tea bags were brewed in 240 milliliters of water at 70°C and the bag was dipped 10 times and pressed with a spoon prior to discard. Results showed that U.S. consumers preferred green tea made from tea bags versus loose leaf. Consumers perceived the intensity of bitterness in tea bag teas as lower than loose-leaf teas.  And regarding country of origin, Chinese and Japanese tea bags were most preferred.

Lead researcher Jeehyun Lee states, “This study lays the foundation to learning what green tea flavor characteristics influence consumers’ liking. Future studies should include using more green tea samples with different flavor profiles.”

Indeed, green tea is the future for value-added tea beverages, especially as more and more positive benefits of consuming green tea get reported in the literature. Most recently, green tea has been linked to helping fight eye disease.

Scientists from the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences at the University of Hong Kong have confirmed that substances found in green tea do penetrate into the tissues of the eye, a fact previously unknown as scientists were unsure if catechins could make their way from the mouth to the gastrointestinal system to the eyes.

The study was conducted using laboratory rats that were fed green tea over a period of time. Subsequent dissection and analysis of the rats’ eye tissue showed significant absorption of individual catechins into various structures of the eye. The retina was seen to absorb the highest levels of gallocatechin, with the aqueous humor absorbing epigallocatechin.

The study, featured in the March 2010 issue of Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry (doi:10.1021/jf9032602), is the first of its kind to document how the lens, retina and other tissues within the eyes absorb beneficial substances such as catechins. The research within the study raises the possibility that among green tea’s long list of already documented health benefits that it might also help to protect against common eye diseases such as glaucoma. According to the authors, “results indicate that green tea consumption could benefit the eye against oxidative stress.”

In conclusion, it is important to remember that when formulating tea beverages or other tea-based dairy foods, tea ingredients not only vary in flavor profile, they also can differ significantly in antioxidant content. If a company chooses to market the tea for its purported health benefits, it is critical that the finished product deliver the powerful antioxidants associated with the benefit. Prior to making any antioxidant content claims, tea ingredients should be verified by a third-party to confirm antioxidant content.  

Lucky Seven

According to the 2009 Functional Foods/Foods for Health Consumer Trending Survey sponsored by the International Food Information Council, Washington, D.C., a quantitative study designed to measure Americans’ attitudes toward, awareness of and interest in functional foods, nine out of 10 Americans are able to name, on an unaided basis, a specific food or food component and its associated health benefit. Specifically, 81% of respondents were aware of this relationship: “antioxidants, found for example in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, dark chocolate, coffee and certain teas, for protection against free radical damage implicated in aging and various chronic diseases.” More than half (54%) said they are already consuming such products for this benefit, while 38% are likely or somewhat likely to in the near future.

Respondents were asked: What is the (first/second/third) food or food component that comes to mind that is thought to have health benefits beyond basic nutrition? Tea ranked seventh.

The Top-10 Functional Foods

1. Fruits and Vegetables
2. Fish/Fish Oil/Seafood
3. Dairy (including milk and yogurt)
4. Meat and Poultry
5. Herbs/Spices
6. Fiber
7. Tea and Green Tea
8. Nuts
9. Whole Grains and Other Grains
10. Water

Exploring Japanese RTD Teas

Though most U.S. RTD tea manufacturers keep their offerings on the milder side of the category, Ito En (North America) Inc., Brooklyn, N.Y., recognizes that there is a market for stronger, Japanese-style tea beverages. The company most recently added Mate Sencha Shot to its line of unsweetened intense tea drinks. Sold in 6.4-ounce cans, the shot line is based on authentically brewed teas that are concentrated sources of antioxidants.

The newest addition, Mate Sencha Shot, combines the energizing power of South American yerba mate with the catechins found in green tea. “With the success of our Ito En Shots - Sencha Shot and Oolong Shot - we wanted to bring another dimension by introducing an exotic intensity to our teas,” says Rona Tison, vice president of corporate relations. “The boldness of yerba mate was the perfect complement to invigorate our traditional brewed green tea.”

Sencha is a Japanese term generally used to refer to green tea. The original Sencha Shot is deep-brewed Japanese green tea that contains five times (152 milligrams) the amount of catechins in a regular cup of green tea. The company says it helps maintain a healthy heart and neutralizes cell-damaging free radicals.

The Oolong Shot offers 171 milligrams of tea polyphenols, which are known to help support cardiovascular health and the healthy digestion of fats, according to the company. Chinese and Japanese cultures have long believed that oolong tea helps maintain a healthy weight.

Priced at a premium ($1.79 per can), the shots are produced in Japan and imported into the States where they are typically retailed through the natural foods channel.

The company is also growing its Teas’ Tea line with a Naturally Sweet extension. Sold in 16.9-ounce plastic bottles, each 8-ounce serving contains a mere 40 calories from a touch of cane sugar added for a slight sweet sensation. The company prides itself on saying that its RTD teas are made from brewed whole loose tea leaves…no tea colors, no tea powders and no tea concentrates.   

Green Tea Gets Frozen

Green tea can be consumed in many ways, including blended into a frozen dessert, as exemplified by new Ciao Bella Matcha Green Tea Gelato. The tea flavor is one of six new pint offerings, which coincides with a package redesign emphasizing the company’s use of all-natural ingredients through high-quality product imagery and bold graphics.

“Ciao Bella chose matcha tea because it is the only form of tea in which the whole leaf is consumed. Further, because it is made from top-quality leaves that are treated with great care, it delivers more of the healthful elements of green tea than other forms,” says Deborah Holt, vice president of marketing, Ciao Bella Gelato Co., Florham Park, N.J. “We are excited to unveil our new pints, sharing both an updated design and flavor offering with Ciao Bella fans and general gelato enthusiasts. Still crafted from the freshest, most natural ingredients, our latest look offers consumers our healthiest and most inspired flavors to date, truly improving on the excellent taste and brand identity they’ve come to expect from Ciao Bella.”

Longstanding favorites at Ciao Bella’s gelato bars, the six new pint flavors are rolling out at retailers nationwide during spring 2010. All six flavors were created by Executive Chef Danilo Zecchin, who ensured that they were kosher and free of corn syrup, refined sugar and synthetic hormones, the same promise now made of all of Ciao Bella’s gelatos and sorbets.