If anyone was expecting an underwhelming and downbeat atmosphere at last week's IFE food and drink show, they would have been pleasantly surprised. Among the soft drinks exhibitors at least, Annette Farr found that in these bleak times producers are keener than ever to set themselves apart through innovation.

The drink aisles at this year's IFE show, which took place in London from 15 to 18 March, provided ample proof of the soft drink sector's continuing ability to innovate and surprise.

Indeed, an IFE innovation award went to a new company, Hintz, which calls itself the 'revolutionary drinks company'. Judges said its Fruitfilm product was "a truly innovative product with the all-important wow factor". Zaheer Ahmad, managing director and inventor of Fruitfilm, says it has taken ten years to bring the product to market.
 
Seen for the first time, this naturally flavoured film, not much bigger than a postage stamp, dissolves into either hot or cold water to produce a flavoured water drink. Made from real fruit, the film leaf produces a drink containing 1 calorie per 500ml serving, with no artificial flavours or sweeteners.

With the ten servings per pack making up five litres of flavoured water, Hintz claims Fruitfilm to be considerably more cost effective than buying bottles of flavoured water. Currently there are two flavours, orange and lemon, but lime and grapefruit are due for imminent launch with a berry variant to follow. Point of sale, however, could be tricky; the packs have no on-shelf presence, although tubs and pull-off tabs are an option.

One of the larger stands was taken by Liquid Smoking. It, too, had the wow factor, not least because of a crowd-pulling Hummer vehicle on the stand. Such was the attraction that stand staff were fearful they would run out of samples.
 
Liquid Smoking is a herbal drink. "It is the opposite of an energy drink, a relaxing drink to reduce the need for nicotine," says Liquid Smoking's Martin Hartman. The drink, first introduced at the Sial show in Paris last October, is an inter-continental collaboration, having been launched in the Netherlands in January, using ingredients from South Africa, where the company has its head office.

The world's first aroma water was another new idea, again with international collaboration. Produced in Germany, Ganicwater is made from Norwegian spring water enhanced with natural extracts. The infusion is said to provide a sense of flavour through the nose rather than the tongue. Each 500ml bottle contains no carbohydrates or sweeteners and there are 15 flavours including Cranberry Pearl, Velvet Green Tea, Orange Beach, Smooth Ginger and even Caramel Toffee. Launched in the UK at the end of 2008, Liquid Lust is handling the brand's distribution.

Creating a new category called 'soft brew' was The Juice Brewery Company, with the launch of Hopper. According to The Juice Brewery's Kate Alexander, the drink is completely 100% alcohol-free and naturally made with hops, malted barley, malted wheat and fruit. The three flavours - Apple, Blackcurrant and Citrus - are aimed at the 25-50 year old male for consumption in both the on- and off-trade.

"We've had a 90% positive feedback on tastings," Alexander says, adding that the drink produces a small 'head' like a lager. With binge and teenage drinking a real concern, the developers of Hopper believe they have filled a gap in the market.

Another first was seen at the Yumberry UK stand. So new, in fact, that it almost did not make the show. Director Alan Leal launched the company in January, began production in February and took delivery of the first cases of his new Yumberry juices a week before the show. There are two options, a 100% pure variant and a 50% juice drink.

Yumberry is made from the Yang-mei, a red berry fruit grown in China. Leal explains he first discovered the Yang-mei fruit when he was buying strawberry juice in China for a fruit juice company. He was so impressed by the taste of the fruit and its high level of health giving antioxidants and vitamins that he has taken a leap of faith to develop these two juices and bring them to market.

It was Mintel's Innovation Live, however, that highlighted some eye-catching global developments, including Brain Water, being marketed to children in the US to increase brain function; Spring Water which comes in a doughnut shaped plastic bottle, apparently very convenient to hold; Kirin Beverages' dry fruit and darjeeling tea drink; and Rising Beverages Activate, the ingredients of which are held in the cap and dropped into the bottle as it is opened.

Elsewhere, the US-developed Ammo sugar-free energy shot, sharing a stand with Jones Soda (at IFE looking to widen its European distributorship), has become a $500m brand in America. Ammo's Verona Coulter says the 'shot' has become the fastest growing category in the energy drink sector. It has already been launched in Ireland and IFE marked its UK launch. She is unapologetic about Ammo's high caffeine content which provides the energy boost. Indeed, the 30ml bottle features a caffeine meter on the side of the bottle so consumers can measure consumption. Ammo can be mixed with water or added to other drinks.

More mainstream developments included Radnor Hills Mineral Water's focus on children's drinks and schools with the development of Aqua 50, a 50% sparkling water and juice brand, and its new Ju Fru brand, a 60% still juice drink. Containing no preservatives and using tunnel pasteurisation, this drink comes in a PET bottle with a shelf life of six to nine months.
 
Traditional UK brands could be seen at IFE too. Belvoir Fruit Farms was celebrating its 25th year with the launch of two new variations of its elderflower cordial: Elderflower, Gooseberry & Muscat Cordial and Belvoir Pear & Elderflower Presse.

And visitors to the stand of UK drinks group Bottlegreen were the first to sample its new Classic Variety Cordials range. There are three flavours: William Pear & Elderflower, Blackberry & Russet Apple and Cox's Apple & Plum.

Bottlegreen managing director Simon Speers appears to sum up the fighting spirit and creativity in evidence at the show. "Given the current economic climate it is even more important that manufacturers invest in new product development that taps into as many key food and drink trends as possible."