In their keenness to explore new flavours and in particular the health properties of exotic ingredients, Annette Farr wonders if soft drinks manufacturers have lost sight of the most basic and vital requirement of any beverage - that it should taste good.

It's a question of taste, or it used to be. Consumers today are being bombarded by ever more outlandish ingredients with wonderful names, promising any number of health benefits. But in all the excitement, the actual taste of the product seems to have become of secondary importance.

Not that the flavour revolution in itself is a bad thing. Within the soft drinks industry, we are seeing unprecedented experimentation with new taste experiences. This is on two levels. There is the cross-fertilisation of flavour ideas such as Coca-Cola's new Blak, which marries cola with coffee (following on the heels of Coca-Cola with Lime). Then we have the completely new taste experiences of newly discovered exotic berries (the Brazilian acai is the current berry du jour), fruits such as the pomegranate or botanicals like the South African rooibos bush.

Added to this is the wealth of natural plant extracts such as elderflowers, jasmine, aloe vera, lemon balm, peppermint, coriander and ginseng.

Invariably these ingredients go into the soft drink mix to attract the health-conscious consumer. And in 2006, beverages including such exotic ingredients are appearing more and more.

According to flavour and ingredients specialist Rudolf Wild, children love classical flavours like orange, strawberry or apple as well as the more adventurous such as dragon fruit in combination with a 'classical' fruit; teenagers prefer 'grown-up' ingredients and energy-flavours.

Seniors have opposite demands: they prefer traditional fruits like apple or pear often combined with the likes of watermelon or apricot. They are attracted to the added values of herbs, authentic teas and tea flavours. Functional ingredients such as vitamins, folic acid, fibre, magnesium or calcium also have a positive and healthy image with elderly consumers.

But in the quest to incorporate the latest botanical or super healthy ingredient, are manufacturers guilty of losing sight of the importance of taste? Many brands nowadays are marketing their drinks more on health and functionality grounds and less on taste.

Ocean Spray, for one, has announced it is putting health research at the centre of a new advertising campaign using the strapline 'Awash with Goodness.'

Jonathan Duffin, business development and brand manager for UK drinks at Ocean Spray, said: "While many consumers know that Ocean Spray is healthy, they're not aware of its potent dual health benefits. This creative campaign will increase consumer awareness about the brand's high antioxidant content and its ability to prevent bad bacteria from taking hold without interfering with the good bacteria. With plenty of science to draw on and more on its way we look forward to building on our strong health credentials as the brand moves into its next phase of development."

No mention of what it tastes like though.

Within the energy drinks sector, many brands' tastes have long been likened to that of medicine. The combination of caffeine, taurine, ginko guarana et al has not readily produced a palatable brew.

Happily, new product development is focusing more on making energy drinks flavoursome. The Australian V brand's latest energy drink offering, for example, is called V Red, which includes guarana, ginko and blackcurrant, apple and raspberry juices. In the US, the Lost surf and skateboard brand has added a new variant with 50% real juice. And in Finland, the taste of the very successful Battery brand, launched in 1997, has just been softened with a ginger extract and introduced as Gingered Battery.

But what of the hottest selling category of all - bottled waters? Here, we are witnessing the ongoing rise of flavoured and enhanced waters. This month's launch in the UK of Carpe Diem Botanical Water is typical of the seemingly interminable list of ingredients now being used.

The range comprises: 'Relaxing' with passion flower, lemon balm, thyme, lavender, rose petals, hops, peppermint, lime flowers and orange peel, said to give a mild and minty taste; 'Vitalising', comprising ginger, lemongrass, cardamon, galangai, quince, elderflower, rosehip, lemongrass and birch leaf, for a light herbal taste; and 'Harmonising' which contains hibiscus, elderflower, acai, dandelion, birchleaves, blackberry leaves, coriander and marigolds.

This year, I joined the judging panel of the 2006 Quality Drinks Awards in the soft drinks category. As we sipped our way through the contenders - fruity, water, juicy, healthy - our taste buds went into overdrive.

Taste, of course, is very subjective - one man's sweet juice is another man's poison - but as a panel we were able to reach a consensus. The drinks put forward as winners all had a clean taste with just the right amount of sweetness, no acidity or lingering aftertaste. Above all, we could actually taste the fruit flavours either individually or in combination with others.

It was a revealing exercise and reminded me that, amongst all the hype of health and wellness, surely the principal objectives of a soft drink are to refresh, rehydrate and, most important, taste good.