The smoothie category is set to be one of the growth drivers in the soft drinks business over the next few years. But a poorly defined category and loose rules over ingredients threaten the double-digit success the market has already experienced. Sarah Diston reports.

A niche market for the "healthy option" smoothie is growing.

Late night revelling on the back of red bull and vodka or a pick-me-up for that all-important meeting after a quiet mid-week drink turned into a cocktail-fuelled bender. Not perhaps the most obvious precursor for a boom in healthy drinking. But one of the knock-on effects from the success of energy drinks in the UK has been the increased enthusiasm by consumers, retailers and producers to embrace further innovation in functional drinks.

Riding on the back of this demand is the quietly developing smoothie sector. And while energy drinks are the "in" beverage for clubbers everywhere, a niche market for the "healthy option" smoothie is growing.

As the functional drinks category has begun to mature, so too has its target audience and smoothies, which are a blend of either pure crushed fruit or dairy-based crushed fruit beverages, mostly target the 25- to 35-year-old age group.

thejuicecompany - smoothiepack

However, while demand for these healthy soft drink alternatives continues to grow in the UK, there is still confusion within the industry on what should be considered a smoothie and what should remain just a juice drink. Even though the smoothie sector is still very much in its infancy, producers are already concerned that the lack of regulation, as soft drink manufacturers jump on the smoothie bandwagon, could ruin it.

"There are companies already, which are launching products that should be called a juice drink. But instead they call them smoothies. And in the UK people are yet to recognise the difference between a juice and a smoothie," said managing director of London-based thejuicecompany, Josephine Carpenter.

"I have seen very cheap products, which are not yet in this country but they will be. And they will be damaging to companies, such as ourselves, who are trying to produce premium quality products which people will pay for," she said.

innocent smoothies - fresh as a daisy

And as Richard Reed, marketing director for another London-based brand Innocent, which has been manufacturing smoothies in the UK for the past two years, told "Smoothie has not been officially legalised as a word and so people are using it to describe different types of products.

"All we ask consumers is don't fall for what is on the front of these bottles as people will play all sorts of marketing tricks. There is one bit of the bottle you should be looking at and that is the ingredient panel," he added.

However until the British Soft Drinks Association (BSDA) recognises smoothies as a category in its own right, there is nothing stopping manufacturers from calling any product with fruit content a smoothie, no matter what other added ingredients it may include. This leaves smoothie producers tenuously relying on consumer awareness and strategic marketing campaigns to ensure that they are aware of the kind of soft drink they are consuming.

Sunjuice - bio-smoothies

"This is what I want to take up with the BSDA on how can we raise the awareness not just to the consumers but to the buyers too. We are having to educate the buyers as well because as yet a smoothie product is not yet a commodity, whereas orange juice is a commodity product," said Reed.

Sunny Delight's fall from grace makes an interesting comparison. Its fate was sealed once its target audience realised that it wasn't quite as healthy as they were first lead to believe. Smoothie producers are hopeful that with specific target marketing and by raising awareness, its consumers too will quickly realise the difference between a "true" smoothie and just another juice product.

"When people realise what is in a good quality product they will spend the money on that product," said Carpenter. "People don't buy a smoothie because they are thirsty, they buy it because they believe it will be good for them and it is a lifestyle product," she added.

However, without clear product definition the market could soon be swamped with cheaper "smoothie" brands. Leaving the more premium products sitting on the shelves.

"There is the potential for smoothie to be de-valued as a term as more people abuse it," said Reed. "But if you have a genuine authentic smoothie you instantly realise the difference between that and one masquerading as a smoothie."

"I think the whole juice area needs some firmer guidelines and definitions really"

And thejuicecompany in particular is hoping for recognition from the BSDA to stop bogus claims from other manufacturers hoping to snatch a share of a growing market.

"As soon as you add sugar and water it becomes a juice drink. And there are one or two products on the market at the moment where the first ingredient is water and the second is sugar. You might then find a percentage of fruit. Personally I feel why should they be able to do that?" said Carpenter.

"A juice drink is produced by extracting only the juice from the fruit by either centrifugation or mastication whereas a smoothie is produced from crushing the whole fruit. A smoothie shouldn't have any additives either," explained Carpenter.

"I would like to see a smoothie defined as a 100% pure fruit smoothie with natural fruit ingredient content, not diluted with cheaper products."

Sunjuice - bio-smoothies

Reed would like to see the definition of smoothies taken one bit further: "I would like to see it defined properly as to what a smoothie originally referred to, which was 100% crushed fruit drink, made with fresh not concentrated juices. Anything less than that, wouldn't be good. As we wouldn't want to be tarred with a less flattering brush so to speak," he added.

Sunjuice, based in Mid Glamorgan produces both fruit and bio-yoghurt smoothies, adding sugar and water in the process. The company believes the entire juice segment should be re-defined and not just the smoothie sector.

Sunjuice development manager, Emma Davis said: "I think the whole juice area needs some firmer guidelines and definitions really. It needs to be made more consumer friendly as the terminology can be quite baffling at times.

"We see smoothies as being thicker products than juices or crushes. And what we think we are doing by adding water and sugar to them is making them more accessible to the consumer, but still keeping them very premium by using good quality fruit purees," she added.

thejuicecompany - ready-to-blend

In reality until the BSDA recognises the word smoothie no recommended ingredient content is necessary. Hence, consumers could be lead to believe they are drinking a smoothie when unintentionally they are drinking a juice drink.

"Until it achieves recognition, it is difficult and quite an uphill struggle for companies," Davis said.

And as Reed explains pressure is going to have to come from the industry itself. "I think it is going to have to come from ourselves as smoothie manufacturers to campaign the BSDA to come up with a tightly defined term. It is going to be very difficult as there are people who will want to make that term as elastic as possible."

Those battling for the definition need to succeed quickly as the sector is growing fast. (thejuicecompany alone has forecast that it will triple its turnover in only its second year of business.) Success in gaining recognition from the BSDA will only become harder the more people spot this potential.

For more information on the UK fruit drinks market visit: