The IFE food and drink exhibition, held in the UK earlier this month, does not attract major international soft drinks groups like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo. But the show demonstrates just how much innovation can be seen among small and medium-sized producers, often pointing the way for the industry as a whole. Annette Sessions took a look around.

The IFE is not an event that attracts mainstream manufacturers, such as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, SmithKlineBeecham, or Britvic. Exhibitors are the smaller enterprises of the soft drinks industry seeking distributorship and listings. But their innovation is a pointer to growth and taste trends the mega-brands cannot ignore.
 
The last IFE held in 2003 was all about bottled water, functionality, energy and blueberries. Since then bottled waters have taken the lion's share of the market, whilst functionality and energy drinks have made the move from niche to mainstream. And the blueberry now vies with the cranberry as the world's healthiest berry. So what were the highlights and trends of this year's show?  

Fruit juice drinks, especially those for children were much in evidence. Innocent chose the show to launch its range of smoothies for kids. The team at Fruit Towers have devised two recipes specifically to appeal to children's palates. They are smoother, thinner with no 'bits' (thus easier to suck up a straw) and slightly sweeter. Product integrity remains key, so the two flavours  -  Apples & Blackcurrant and Oranges, Mangoes & Pineapple -  comprise 100% pure crushed fruit with no additives, preservatives or concentrates.

Meanwhile Metro Drinks MD, Paul Bendit, reports its Juice Patrol, launched last year, is going extremely well, and proving to be the ideal brand for school vending machines. The USP is that it is 100% additive free, (no  E numbers) with reduced sugar, marketed as a healthy option for children. The latest flavour addition is  English Apple & Pear.

Hoping to join in the hugely successful footsteps of Britvic's Fruit Shoot is Fruit Squeez, new from UK's largest independent soft drinks company, The Silver Spring Mineral Water Company. Introduced in vibrantly coloured plastic bottles with sports cap, the drinks come in Apple & Blackcurrant, Orange and Peach flavours, and boast a 15% fruit juice content with added vitamins. 

Adults were not left out of the fruit juice equation. The formula seen at IFE 2005 was to offer more sophisticated fruit juice blends and incorporate vegetables.

Grove Juice, for example, launched its V juice sub brand with an organic  vegetable juice, a carrot, tomato and red pepper variant along with a revamped organic  tomato and vegetable drink.  V Juice contains fewer than 60 calories per 250ml serving and is thus being marketed to the weight-conscious consumer.

"With about 60% of the population currently overweight and 154 million people on a diet at any one time, we have a huge pool of consumers to tap into and a fantastic opportunity to stimulate the dormant vegetable juice sector which is currently worth just £10 million," said Grove Juice md, Andrew Shupick.

The company produces 100% certified organic juices and says its sales grew by 100% in 2004 compared to 2003.  Two currently popular flavours are ruby orange and apple. In the pipeline is a prune juice.

The Big Squeeze Fresh Juice Company was promoting not only its flagship organic carrot juice but a new, excellent tasting 'strawberry, apple with a twist of mint' drink. Truly organic, this small independent company is holding its own in a highly competitive market, carving a niche as a "quirky brand with quirky flavours". 

And dipping their toes into the juice market for the first time is Lancashire-based Garden House Farm, a family farming business which dates back to 1927.  Traditionally its produce, principally carrots, was sent to wholesale market, but now it is being used to make its own drinks. Garden House Farm director, Antony Harrison, identified three reasons for diversifying into the juice market. "First, carrot juice has all the health benefits consumers are looking for," he explained. "Second, there is an established juice market and third, the current offerings taste awful." 

He maintains that since their carrots are harvested fresh every day, washed, hand selected and cold pressed, that no other juicing operation can do it better,  There are three variants: Pure Pressed 100% Carrot Juice, Carrot, Apple & Mango (50% carrot juice, 40% apple juice, 10% mango) and Carrot, Orange &  Pineapple (50% carrot juice, 30% orange juice and 20% pineapple juice). The juices are flash-pasteurised, giving a 30-day shelf life.

Elsewhere Simply Nectar was looking for buyers of its well-presented and packaged range of nectars from France. These are sugar-free, pasteurised  drinks with a two-year shelf life, ideal for hotels and delis. Of its range of six flavours, Mango is the most popular said company spokesman Jeremy Jaffé.

Buyers, too, were being sought for POM Wonderful pomegranate juice. This brand is being launched in April by Retail Brands in partnership with US company, Pom Wonderful. It was first introduced to American consumers in 2002. High in antioxidants, pomegranate juice claims positive effects on heart health.

Some observers remarked that there had been little movement in new product development on the soft drinks front compared to 2003. However, what was encouraging was to see the young start-up companies of 2003, such as Firefly (functional), Saxon Drinks (Suffolk apple juice) and Feel Good Drinks Company (healthy juice drinks), put in a second appearance at the event, having grown beyond initial expectations. Firefly drinks are now sold in Austria, Canada, Japan, Italy and France. Saxon Drinks reports it is now listed in UK supermarket chain, Waitrose, and is a pioneer in gastro-pub chains, whilst The Feel Good Drinks Company reports it grew by 300% last year and is now looking to expand overseas.