Soft drinks manufacturers are bombarding consumers with products claiming to improve every faculty of body and mind. Annette Sessions takes a look at some of the ingredients coming on to the market that are fuelling the functional drinks boom.

When it comes to new product development the soft drinks industry is ever inventive. Not only are consumers' palates titillated with exciting and exotic flavour sensations, but ingredient manufacturers are sourcing and creating ingredients which offer that much-banded word in the industry - functionality.

According to Helen Lewis, author of Reuters Business Insight report on 'New Profit Opportunities in Health and Nutrition to 2009',  "consumers are becoming increasingly self-aware and self-medicating. Understanding consumers' health concerns and the relationship between nutrition and purchasing habits unlocks the door to new profit opportunities and growth strategies."

Health-promoting ingredients are subject to the vagaries of fashion and the Reuters' report suggests that cholesterol-reducing products will replace low carb as the profitable 'hotspot' in the food and drinks industry.  

Omega-3 unsaturated fatty acids, are currently enjoying a high profile as essential oils which help play an important role in human metabolism. After years of research, the global supplier of flavourings, Symrise, reports it is now able to incorporate sufficiently large volumes of Omega-3 fatty acids in juice-based drink compounds. The company is also marketing its soy drinks as a low cholesterol source of protein

Elsewhere, new research by scientists in Taiwan indicates that Hibiscus flower extract may be useful in the prevention and even treatment of cardiovascular diseases in which cholesterol plays a major role. In Mexico the Hibiscus, along with other exotic fruit and flowers, is used in 'aguas frescas', a traditional Mexican soft drink. In fact, one aguas frescas brand, Canita, has just launched its range in the US, targeting the Hispanic market.

Then there is a new generation of functional beverage concepts from Plantextrakt, the German plant extract producer. These have been named Reefresh, Reecover and Reelax. All recipe variations contain a high level of catechines, phenol carbonic acid or proanthoncyanidine

In a similar vein, Sigma-tau HealthScience Inc., based in Maryland USA, introduced its Livingtonics concept of naturally sweetened tea beverages at the InterBev show held in Florida. There are three: Zenbrew to support nerve and cognitive health; ReservaCarn for heart health; and In Touch, described as a muscle fuel that supports fat-burning as an important function of exercise.

Also in the sports sector, DSM Food Specialties has launched PeptoPro, an  active peptide which claims 5% better muscle recovery times for athletes. To demonstrate its efficacy, DSM developed PeptoPro Sports exclusively for the Dutch Olympic team. More than 200,000 cans of the drink have been provided to Dutch athletes since 2003.

The ingredient contains protein components (peptides) which had not previously been used in sports recovery drinks due to the turbidity, insolubility and bitter taste associated with them. The new PeptoPro peptide ingredient is said to eliminate these issues. German sports nutrition company, Haleko, is marketing the Multipower Recharge Drink bearing the PeptoPro logo.

Seaweed is yet another ingredient now appearing soft drinks labels. Marigot Ltd, specialists in the development and production of natural mineral products, markets a range of mineralised seaweed ingredients called Aquamin rich in both calcium (32%) and magnesium (30%) and containing up to 70 beneficial trace minerals including zinc, cooper and magnesium. The most recent addition, Aquamin S, has been designed to enhance the nutritional profile in low pH products such as beverages which are usually difficult to fortify. 

For eye health, particularly macular degeneration, the US Food and Drug Administration has recently affirmed the safety of free lutein and zeaxanthin. US Kemin Foods offers FloraGLO Lutein sources from marigold flowers and, purified from the marigold flower, oleoresin, claiming it to be the world's leading patented purified lutein. What's more, recent science, says Kemin, suggests that it may promote healthy skin. 

And here's an ingredient for memory loss from another American company, The Memory Secret Company. Its natural memory ingredients - Intelectol, Oxopocetine and Vincagenol  - are said to help improve symptoms associated with mental health.

"These compounds have been used in more than 50 countries as cerebral metabolism activators for the treatment of cognitive disorders of elderly people.  Now, after years of clinical studies, it has been demonstrated that in combination with coffee, tea and cola drinks, they can provoke a synergistic increase in memory, with a more intense effect in young people," explained spokesperson Alicia Salcedo.

Patents have been applied for. At the same time the company has created a new formulation of herbals with Vinca extracts said to expand functional capabilities of the body and mind. The company is currently looking to work with beverage manufacturers to develop what it calls a Memory Drink.

"We offer the concept, and we have the necessary patents and trademarks, MemoCola, MemoCafe, MemoTea, MemoCao and MemoWater.  We would consider developing a drink as the first step, and to distribute this functional beverage through strong distribution networks as the second," said Salcedo. These may seem somewhat 'new age' and niche but mainstream brands cannot afford to ignore the power of the health-conscious consumer.