According to a new report from the British Soft Drinks Association, functional beverages are continuing to outperform all other soft drinks categories. Annette Farr reviews the latest innovations in a vibrant category.

For many years, producers of functional drinks have been spearheading innovation within the soft drinks industry. With the latest figures showing that functionals are now outperforming all other sectors both in the UK and overseas, the innovation continues apace as these drinks move from niche to mainstream.

The British Soft Drink Association (BSDA) 2009 soft drinks report, entitled 'Trusted Innovation', states that while most categories in the UK in 2008 showed volume declines, this was not the case with functional drinks. Indeed, the combined sports and energy drinks sector grew by 11% reaching 505m litres. The report noted the emergence of a new generation of sports and energy hybrids with the dual function of focusing the mind and delivering replenishment both physically and mentally.

Enhanced waters, such as those with ingredients which aid weight management and skin health, fared even better; this sector grew by 21%. Inside Out Beauty, for example, owner of Sip naturally-flavoured water, saw sales in 2008 rise from GBP40,000 to GBP0.5m on the back of new 'high street' listings. Sip is sweetened with natural fruit flavourings, with added nutrients, vitamins and antioxidants, and no added sugar.

Coca-Cola leads the functional water category with Glaceau Vitaminwater, acquired in May 2007. This spring, the brand was launched in South Africa, having already been rolled out in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Mexico. Initial marketing focuses on the two key urban areas of Johannesburg and Cape Town, but Durban and other regional markets are to follow.

The enhanced water comes in six flavours: Power-c (dragonfruit), Essential (orange-orange), Energy (tropical), Super-v (lemon), XXX (acai, blueberry and pomegranate), and Revive (fruit punch).

Meanwhile, rival PepsiCo is re-launching Propel, its low-calorie (10 calories per serving) nutrient-enhanced water beverage, in the US. There is a new blueberry and pomegranate flavour, and two new sub-lines with added nutrients. Propel Body, available in peach and mango, is high in fibre; while Propel Mind, available in black cherry, contains antioxidant vitamin E plus choline, an essential nutrient for the brain.

"With an enhanced portfolio of products and a new eco-friendly look and design, Propel is providing those on-the-go, with a great tasting, low-calorie enhanced water with antioxidants and now with additional nutrient options," says Danielle Vona, vice president for Propel.

And worldwide, according to analysts Euromonitor, functional bottled water tripled its global off-trade value sales between 2003 and 2008 to US$6.7bn.

Functionality, of course, is seen in other categories, including a plethora of juices drinks featuring superfruits (cranberries, pomegranates, acai berries etc), all with a healthy dose of antioxidants. Euromonitor says that global value sales of such health and wellness drinks grew by 73% over the 2002-2007 period, compared with 57% for soft drinks overall.

It appears that, in spite of the recession, there is a growing number of consumers seeking out health and wellness drinks that are natural and provide a functional benefit. The BSDA report says "more niche functional drinks claiming to assist in the prevention of wider health issues" will be seen. It is these wider health issues that are currently spurring new product development, predominately aimed at the middle-aged and older consumer, a growing demographic not to be ignored.

At May's Vitafoods show in Geneva, exhibitors promoted products that can be incorporated into beverages which would aid brain, eye and heart health, improve bone health (including osteoarthritis), reduce menopausal symptoms, and assist blood pressure maintenance, and blood glucose management.

For example, new developments in natural anti-inflammatory ingredients for effective joint health maintenance were unveiled by Waitaki Biosciences, with the launch of the company's latest stabilised Greenshell Mussel (GSM) powder, whilst Gelita turned the spotlight on its new therapeutic agent against osteoarthritis, Fortigel. This is an active ingredient which specifically stimulates cartilage metabolism and enhances the synthesis of cartilage cells.

Green tea has also emerged as a popular component in functional beverages. With its high level of natural antioxidants, green tea has been linked with a number of health benefits including the regulation of blood sugar, promotion of digestion, and improved mental processes. Green tea also contains the amino-acid L-theanine, known for reducing psychological and physiological stress responses and for exerting a calming effect on the body.

In the US, green tea has been the fastest growing segment of the ready-to-drink tea category, with an average annual growth rate of 16.5% (IRI 2006-2008). The latest launches stateside include Lipton Sparkling Green Tea, a blend of fruit flavours, green tea and lightly sparkling water, and ITO EN (North America) Inc.'s Green Tea Ginseng. "Knowing the medicinal benefits of ginseng and the antioxidants found in green tea, we wanted to offer our consumers a beverage that was not only refreshing, but rich in health benefits," says Rona Tison, vice president of corporate relations at ITO EN.

In Geneva, Taiyo Europe showcased its range of active green tea products. The company says naturally-occurring catechins specific to the green tea plant, camilia sinesis, are thought to be responsible for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. By neutralising free radicals within the body, these catechins help reduce cellular damage.

Plantextrakt, a manufacturer of tea and herbal extracts and decaffeinated tea, was at Vitafoods with its new liquid concentrate, Elexia, based on black tea, green tea and herbal variants. "Consumers are looking for naturalness and functionality," says Plantextrakt product manager Oliver Hehn.

Elsewhere, Fortitech, a global producer of custom nutrient premixes, plans to showcase samples that focus on boosting immunity, cognitive function and anti-ageing during IFT 2009, which takes place from 6 to 9 June in Anaheim, California.