Unilever, the food and beverage giant, has opened its global R&D centre of excellence for drinks in the UK.

The Bedfordshire-based technology centre will focus on developing new products for Unilever's branded beverages including Lipton, PG tips, Flora and Slim-Fast.

"We know from experience that some of the most exciting innovations are born out of fusions between consumer and technical insights," Phil Evans, director of the new centre said at the opening. "Unilever has both of these; we can really deliver our promise of taste, health, and convenience through our products and we are passionate about bringing our technology to life for the benefit of drinkers of all Unilever's beverages."

The centre, which employs 90 scientists and specialists from 15 countries, was designed to bring together all Unilever's beverages experts into one place.

"We have a significantly modified building here," Evans told just-drinks. "I've been here 15 years plus and I've seen it change from dusty and trusty to completely energised."

Evans confirmed that four further centres are to open in the next 12 months, including an iced-foods specialist centre on the same Bedfordshire grounds next month, an assembled foods centre in Italy in early July, a dry foods centre in South Germany in November and a further centre in Poland around January 2009.

Using some of the near EUR50m (US$77.6m) budget that Unilever uses for its R&D in drinks annually, the team will be creating drinks with an emphasis on "delivering health benefits" but that also "taste great and are convenient and affordable" - from weight management teas to cholesterol-lowering milk drinks and yoghurts.

To develop these products, Unilever said it will focus on bringing out the natural taste and health benefits from plants such as tea, fruits, vegetables and soy.

The emphasis of the centre is to build on its technical capability in tea manufacturing technology, drinks ingredients technology and in drinks packaging, which the manufacturer said are "innovative packaging formats that are convenient and act as a 'silent salesman' for the product benefits."

"There is a new wave of innovation coming and green tea is seen as the big ticket but some things you can't change overnight so we have to get all the players together to make it work," Evans finished.