Three or four decades ago, consumers had few choices when it came to ready-to-drink (RTD) beverages. The available assortment consisted mainly of milk, soft drinks, juice/fruit drinks and alcoholic beverages such as wine and beer.

Today, the variety is rather astounding — with offerings ranging from energy drinks and sports beverages to functional waters and probiotic kefir shots, most in convenient single-serve bottles or cans.

And as the assortment of RTD beverages continues to expand, the more difficult it can be for any one product to stand out. Dairy processors competing in the RTD coffee, tea and/or juice space, therefore, would be wise to pay close attention to current and emerging trends, as well as new ingredients, that could help differentiate their products in this colossal space.


Think ‘clean drinking’

One current overarching trend with traction is that toward cleaner labels. Sarah Diedrich, customer marketing manager for Wauconda, Ill.-based Synergy Flavors Inc., notes that the RTD beverage category already is showcasing “clean drinking” innovation in a number of areas.

“While clean eating is well-defined, consumer preference for what constitutes clean drinking is still emerging amidst the rise of functional ingredients, cold-pressed juice and natural sources of energy,” she says.

On the clean drinking front, Brock Lundberg, Ph.D., division president – R&D for River Falls, Wis.-based Fiberstar Inc., points to an uptick in requests for the replacement of hydrocolloid stabilizers such as gellan gum and xanthan gum with more natural alternatives.

Vince Cavallini, beverage, dairy and convenience foods application manager for Cargill, Wayzata, Minn., agrees that clean-label trends also are influencing some texturizer choices on the part of formulators. He points to heightened interest in hydrocolloids such as pectin.

Catherine Barry, director of marketing for the Frederick, Colo.-based National Honey Board, notes that processors of RTD coffee, tea and juice really have had to examine their ingredient formulations to respond to consumers’ desire for ingredients that are all-natural and unprocessed.

“Consumers are paying more attention than ever to the sweeteners used in their favorite packaged foods,” she adds, “and processors have started responding by using all-natural and unprocessed sweeteners such as honey.”


Shake the sugar

Sugar reduction is another major trend playing out in the RTD coffee, tea and juice space.

“With the new callouts for added sugar on the Nutrition Facts panel, the pressure to reduce or eliminate added sugar altogether has only intensified,” explains Cavallini.

Diedrich agrees, calling low-sugar and no-sugar formulations the most significant trend within the beverage space. But consumers are not willing to compromise on flavor.

“Consumers still want the indulgent taste of the legacy RTD products made with syrups and artificial flavors, but without the guilt,” she says.

Barry notes that honey is trending as both a sweetener and a flavor in RTD coffees, teas and juices.

“In products such as green tea, honey imparts a familiar flavor loved by consumers around the world,” she says. “In coffees and juices, honey offers clean-label sweetness that consumers are familiar with.”

As a natural zero-calorie alternatives to sugar, stevia is also enjoying steady growth (as are allulose and monk fruit).

“When compared to 12 of the leading low- and no-calorie sweeteners, consumers consistently rank stevia leaf extract the most healthful, as well as having the most positive perception on the label,” Cavallini adds, pointing to proprietary Cargill research. “Options like Cargill’s ViaTech stevia leaf extract and EverSweet stevia sweetener provide significant improvements in sweetness quality compared to traditional stevia leaf extracts, enabling sugar reductions of 70% or more.”

Cavallini says Cargill recommends pairing stevia with erythritol because it helps optimize mouthfeel and rounds out the sweetness profile of stevia.

Katharina Pueller, director, natural sweetener business for Sweegen Inc., Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., agrees that artificial sweeteners are out of favor among consumers, while reduced-sugar/natural sweetener combinations are in. The trend here for many beverages is a mixture of 2 to 5 grams of sugar with stevia or other natural sweeteners.

“Our newest Bestevia Taste Solutions offer great sweet solutions in many categories for different applications,” she notes. “We utilize our stevia sweeteners, coupled with mouthfeel and modulation tools, to build the perfect sweetness for different application needs.”

Companies reducing or removing sugar — as well as fat — from RTD coffee, tea and juices can also benefit from the use of natural citrus fiber such as Fiberstar’s Citri-Fi offering to stabilize the products and impart “a more natural texture,” Lundberg says.

“These functional fibers improve texture and mouthfeel in conjunction with flavors and/or high-intensity sweeteners for sweetness,” he says. “Citri-Fi natural citrus fiber is a way to have a simple clean-label ingredient declaration [while] still having a great-tasting stable product with a natural texture.”


Flavor it up

While trying to minimize sugar, many formulators are focusing on flavor, Cavallini notes. He points to a trend toward orange blossoms and chamomile — and other subtle floral and herbal blends — in RTD tea. And in the struggling RTD juice segment, exotic fruits such as passion fruit, acai, guava and prickly pear can add fresh appeal.

And opportunity also can be found in sweet spices across RTD coffee, juice and tea, according to Philip Caputo, marketing and consumer insights manager for New York-headquartered Virginia Dare.

“Think chai apple cider, clementine cardamom, spiced cranberry lime, vanilla anise, ginger tea, maple cinnamon, grapefruit allspice and spice rum caramel,” he suggests. “While appropriate servings of fruit may have a balance of antioxidants, fiber and natural sugar, bottled juices may have a high sugar content per serving. Creating a juice blend of low-sugar coconut water, high-antioxidant fruits, a natural sweetener and added spices can deliver a unique layer taste experience without excess sugar.”

Botanical flavors such as rose, ginger, lemongrass, mint and basil represent another area of opportunity for RTD beverage developers, says Patrick Riolo, beverage lab manager for South Plainfield, N.J.-based Allen Flavors Inc.

“Think of these flavors as a garnish, providing a twist to a familiar flavor such as lemon, peach, raspberry, orange or mango,” he suggests. “The standard raspberry ice tea is no longer accepted across all consumer markets — there is a segment of consumers that demands a different flavor experience.”

But don’t discount the appeal of some tried-and-true favorites. According to Pam deVries, general manager of Boston-based Prova North America, vanilla, chocolate and caramel continue to grow in RTD coffee applications. (The company offers a new cold-brew extract that’s shelf-stable for up to 12 months, as well as fair trade coffee and cocoa extracts.)

“We see seasonal flavors such as chestnut, salted caramel and peppermint mocha,” she adds.


Make it functional

Today’s consumers also are looking to reap extra benefits, in terms of health and wellness, energy and more, from their RTD beverages. Some fits for RTD coffee, tea and juice include caffeine derived from natural sources such as guayusa, yerba mate and green coffee bean; L-theanine in combination with caffeine; and coconut water as a natural source of electrolytes, says Riolo.

For its part, Prova North America sees adaptogens — nontoxic substances such as plant extracts and certain mushrooms that help the body resist the damaging effects of stress — as perfect additions to RTD coffee or mocha beverages, notes deVries.

“Collagen certainly aligns with the dairy beverage category for an important addition to RTD coffee beverages,” she adds. “For RTD tea, we are seeing the addition of turmeric, ginger and ashwagandha, for example, as adaptagens.”

Pam Everett, vice president of insights and product innovation for S&D Coffee & Tea, Concord, N.C., notes that functional teas and juices, in particular, are becoming more popular.

“Botanical agents, including lemongrass, ginger, lavender, elderflower and hibiscus, are being infused in everything from coffees and teas to juices and infused waters for their flavor and health attributes,” Everett adds.

On the RTD tea side, primary research from Synergy Flavors shows that relaxation, cognitive health and longevity are the top need states consumers want addressed through functional ingredients, Diedrich notes.

“Through this research, we break down our need states into subcategories to guide our formulators to the best functional additives,” she says. “For example, when it comes to relaxation, we can categorize this into stress relief or sleep aids, and longevity can be subcategorized into immunity, digestive or anti-inflammatory and pain management.”

Speaking of tea, true teas and herbal teas are actually a “backbone in traditional medicine, holistic healing and symptom relief,” Caputo explains. So as consumers move toward natural healing and “food, not pharma,” RTD teas such as herbal blends, elixirs, kombucha, tinctures and tea tonics spell opportunity for processors.

“Brands would be smart to create complete functional product lines that target symptom relief and proactive health benefits, where your fridge is your medicine cabinet: Grab a tea beverage to relieve an upset stomach while delivering gut nutrition and ingredients for relaxation,” he points out.


Consider a hybrid

Is it coffee, tea or juice? As the trend toward hybrid beverages grows, it’s getting harder and harder to tell.

This category crossing is resulting in flavor experiences that are exciting and complex, according to Caputo. And Virginia Dare is predicting growth in a number of hybrid areas, including RTD hard/spiked coffee lattes, botanical lattes, sparkling wine kombucha, kombucha coffee, drinking vinegar juices, spice- or herb-containing carbonated coffee and much more.

“The lemonade platform never disappoints as a hybrid hotspot,” he adds. “We see botanicals and fermented concepts leading the category crossing here, and maybe more citrus varietals in the mix — grapefruits, pomelo, clementine, yuzu, Meyer lemon, etc.”

Another opportunity within the hybrid RTD beverage space can be found in high-performance teas that compete with pre-workout beverages, Diedrich maintains.

“Tea and juice hybrids are on the rise outside of traditional half & half beverages or probiotic kombuchas,” she adds. “Brands like Honest Tea, Match Bar and Trader Joe’s all launched new products in fall 2019 that give sweetness with an added health halo of benefits, with an array of different juice and tea blends.”

Although S&D Coffee & Tea has been noticing the presence of juice and tea hybrids for some time, the company expects to see an increase in these products touting benefits such as better-for-you ingredients and making claims such as “focus,” “calm” or “energize,” Everett says.

Speaking of juice hybrids, Riolo notes a growing array of products getting all of their sugar from the juice and containing “an acceptable level” of minerals and vitamins to make a label claim. He also points to new RTD coffee hybrids containing extra caffeine. These appeal to both energy drink consumers and coffee lovers.

“With the popularity of cold-brew coffee, we’ve started seeing hybrids blending it with everything from juice to soda,” Everett adds. “We’re also seeing coffee and tea versions of some traditional alcoholic drinks such as a shandy or old-fashioned. The coffee with citrus trend has been interesting, as it marries two tastes together that were a bit unexpected.”

But perhaps the most significant trend within RTD coffee, tea and juice hybrids is the incorporation of plant-based “milks.”

“Plant-based milks will continue to influence the category, with oat, hemp and coconut becoming go-to choices,” Everett predicts.

Cavallini adds pea protein to that list, noting that it meshes well with big consumer trends such as non-GMO, high protein, vegan and more. It delivers the sensory characteristics and functionality product formulators need, too.

Cargill’s Puris pea protein is sourced from yellow pea seed varieties that are carefully selected to minimize off-flavors traditionally associated with pulses, he notes. The protein also is processed without hexane to produce the best, cleanest flavor.

Lundberg says that plant-based creamers also are hitting the market, and some RTD coffee drinks are incorporating these types of creamers into the final product.

“Once again, these developers are looking for natural ingredients to create mouthfeel and texture and maintain stability over time,” he maintains.

For its part, Virginia Dare expects new varieties of oat-, coconut- and almond-based RTD coffees, tea lattes and creamers to show up in 2020 — featuring profiles that are both classic and exciting, Caputo says. To help meet demand here, the company developed a range of vegan coffee and tea lattes, including the London Fog latte blend of “oatmilk,” black tea, bergamot, vanilla and lavender; the rose mocha latte blend of coconut milk, cold brew, cocoa and rose blossom; and more.

When it comes to hybrids, it seems the sky is the limit.

“It’s an exciting time to be in the beverage industry,” Everett says, “and we can expect to see a surge in innovative new hybrid beverages blending the most popular drinks and ingredients of the moment such as cold-brew coffee or botanical teas blended with CBD, nootropics, MCT oil, collagen protein and more.”