In his latest comment piece for just-drinks, soft drinks & bottled water observer Richard Corbett tells us of his time out in the jungle, and what it taught him about the future for the category.

A few years ago I found myself ambling through the heart of the Ecuadorian rainforest. Fortunately, I had a guide from the local Achuar tribe to direct me back to camp. As we walked, the Achuar Indian would point out the rich abundance of flora and fauna on view. He would also stop at intervals and point out various plants and berries that his people would use for an assortment of ailments and enhancements.

The rainforest seemed to be one big natural pharmacy.

Back in the 'modern world', we have tended to look to artificial drugs and products to aid us through our day-to-day lives, when often the natural alternatives can be found all around us. In the soft drinks world, we are already seeing consumer-driven demand for natural solutions for healthier lifestyles.

The natural sweetener Stevia highlights this trend as well as any. Since late-2008, Stevia has been approved in the US and in the European Union since November 2011. Since then, we have seen a plethora of products adopt this natural alternative to the artificial sweetening options available. When Coca-Cola and Pepsi are launching Stevia-sweetened products then you know that Stevia is destined for the mainstream.

Naturalness sells, especially in times when soft drink products - and what goes into them - come under more scrutiny than ever before. A 'superfruit' has been defined as any fruit offering value beyond basic nutrition, and the range continues to grow, as entrepreneurs and the big players seek out new offerings that provide a short cut to healthy living without resorting to resolutions that started life in a laboratory.

The acai berry is now widely recognised and used but lesser-known fruits like the Saskatoon berry, the Chilean maqui berry, mangosteen and pitaya are all rapidly raising their profiles. Beetroot juice is another form of refreshment that has recently been promoted as a miracle worker, boosting brain power, cleansing your liver and cutting the risk of heart disease and strokes.

Price and taste is often the main hindrance to superfruits generating big volumes, but pomegranate has shown that consumers will stomach a little added value to upgrade their dietary intake. Rich in anti-oxidants, pomegranate juice is reported to help when treating heart disease, premature ageing and cancer. Prior to pomegranate, cranberry juice was another drink that rose to prominence driven by its perceived healthy attributes. It has yielded dividends for the Ocean Spray brand, with one report tracking the brand’s sales at very healthy 800m to 900m litres worldwide. Antioxidants are again abundant in cranberry products, with some scientific studies showing that drinking cranberry juice can reduce the chances of getting heart disease if you have high cholesterol. Cranberry juice is even said to be good for your dental hygiene.

Such so-called ‘natural’ products also go under the microscope, however: Claims that cranberry juice can treat a bladder infection or urinary tract infection have been disputed, with some research claiming that the oxalate content actually gives you kidney stones.

Coconut water is another beverage riding high on the back of its healthy attributes and has attracted a celebrity following in the US. Singers Madonna and Rihanna are so keen on it that they are shareholders in one of the leading brands, Vita Coco. Suppliers may have got into trouble for exaggerating the extent of the positive side effects of drinking coconut water but some good certainly comes from drinking the stuff.

Coconut water is low in calories and rich in vitamins, and the natural presence of electrolytes ensures it sits comfortably as a sports drink – depending on what you read, it has the same amount of potassium content as four bananas. It is also said to be good for your skin.

It is no coincidence, then, that Coca-Cola (Zico) and Pepsi (O.N.E, Naked) have both looked to join the party and this has no doubt contributed to the explosion in sales, particularly in the north-east and western regions of the US. In Europe, coconut water is gaining a rising presence, featuring in new product development and increasing visibility on supermarket shelves.

The Coconut water boom may be a new phenomenon in the developed world, but back in the rain forest my guide from the Achuar tribe will have been enjoying the benefits of coconut water all of his life, as did his ancestors before him.

When you are looking for the next big soft drink craze, it is often already out there, growing on the trees or in the fields. And, that’s where many consumers increasingly want them to come from.

Vitamin waters and other artificially-fortified products may have captured a sizeable audience but the mood appears to be shifting towards naturally-enriched products.

Expert analysis

Functionality, Naturalness and Stevia Key to Developing Beverages to Fit Today’s trends

Functionality, Naturalness and Stevia Key to Developing Beverages to Fit Today’s trends

Low calorie content is key to healthy beverages, but consumers are demanding more. Innovation is driven by naturally healthy and functional beverages. Consumers are turning away from artificial ingred...read more