As the functional food and drink market develops and choice broadens, consumers are becoming more demanding about how products taste rather than simply buying them for their health-enhancing properties. Ahead of next month's Health Ingredients Europe trade show, Annette Farr looks at some of the new functional ingredients hitting the market and asks how ingredient companies are tackling the taste challenge.

The 'all-natural' claim is fast becoming ubiquitous within the soft drinks industry as the use of artificial flavours, colours and additives reduces. Today, the driving force behind new product development across all categories is the adding of value in a nutritious, natural and ethical way, using ingredients which produce refreshing, tasty beverages with healthy functional benefits. But it is the taste element in this mix which is becoming an increasingly important criterion for consumers.

Attempting to meet this challenge are the ingredient companies with their innovative drinks concepts. Many will be seen at the Health Ingredients Europe show, taking place early in November in Paris. This is the stage for ingredients and flavourists to demonstrate the new ideas and products they believe will find favour with the health-conscious consumer.

First-time exhibitor Frutarom is promoting a natural ingredient which can be used in diet or satiety drinks. Called Finomate the ingredient features an extract of green mate, which has been traditionally used in folk medicine for its stimulant, diuretic and appetite suppressant effects. The Dutch company says its trials on overweight women and obese rats have shown that consumption of Finomate over a long period is effective in reducing body weight and visceral fat.

Frutarom has also developed a '50 plus ' concept to provide food and drink products specifically tailored to this increasingly important, discerning and health-aware age group. Aimed at the over-50s, it purports to aid heart health, mental agility, balanced digestion and bone health. To promote the concept, Frutarom has devised a juice drink with a high superfruit and antioxidant content featuring artichoke and red vine leaf extract.

Another niche category is the beauty drink or 'cosmeceutical' sector, a target market for Plantextrakt, the German tea and herbal extract manufacturer. The company says its scientific studies have demonstrated the positive properties of selected herbal extracts on skin cells. Oliver Hehn, product manager, says: "Natural beauty, thanks to natural ingredients, is the central theme of our concept that is based on our study in the effects of functional herbals in beverages on skin health."

Hehn continues: "Beverages with authentic taste experiences are very much the trend among consumers. We will be presenting a concept designed to meet this demand using green tea, rooibos, lemon balm and other herbs." The company says its gentle production method results in an intensive taste experience.

There is also a lot of excitement around whey protein. For the ageing consumer its inherent high level of protein helps to reduce blood pressure, improve gastrointestinal function, preserve lean body mass, boost immune systems, reduce cholesterol, protect against cancer and maintain heart health. And when used in sports drinks, such as fitness waters, whey protein is a vegetarian source of the important nutrients that aid recovery after exercise and increase muscle bulk for athletes.

In Paris, Carbery will unveil its new advanced whey protein isolate which can be used to fortify ready-to-drink products, functional waters and sports drinks. The company's hydrolysed whey protein ingredient, Optipep, will also be promoted. This, says Carbery, is easily absorbed by the body, making it ideal for infant, clinical and sports nutrition applications.

Paul Donegan, marketing manager at Carbery, confirms that "consumers are becoming more demanding in terms of product taste, so both nutritional criteria and consumer appeal must be acknowledged. Our new isolate allows manufacturers to create appealing products that also deliver important nutritional benefits in areas such as sarcopenia, heart and bone health".

Meanwhile green tea extracts have become widely accepted as beneficial to health and well-being. The market for green tea extracts is, according to supplier Taiyo Europe, currently worth GBP44m (US$78m) and is set to grow by 13% by 2015.

Josef Skrna, sales and marketing director of Taiyo Europe, says: "As food ingredient labels come under increased scrutiny, manufacturers are looking for natural ingredients that strike a positive chord with consumers. With more than 500 published studies worldwide, green tea extracts are one of the most well researched ingredients on the market."

The company's Sunphenon range is rich in catechins and polyphenols with strong antioxidant, antimicrobial and thermogenic (fat burning) properties, Taiyo Europe claims. New on the market - and claimed to be ideal for energy drinks - is Sunphenon 90LBS, a green tea extract that is said to virtually eliminate the astringent taste characteristic of green tea; and Sunphenon TH-20 which contains a minimum 20% of the amino acid L-theanine, a natural stress reliever to help relax, improve sleep and enhance concentration.

Elsewhere, with health in mind Symrise has developed the 'Good Conscience' product series. This includes a premium carbonate known as 'Fancy', a reduced-calorie sparkling drink with lemon and mango/pineapple notes, no artificial sweeteners, and a higher concentration of juice than most carbonates. A second carbonate concept 'Home-made' is based on pure fruit juice and fruit extracts with traditional, local flavours. "Classic, unadulterated, no artificial flavours, sweeteners or additives" is how Symrise describes this, adding "and it tastes especially good".

Taste is fundamental (as producers of energy drinks will testify) and getting the taste right is the challenge for producers when faced with this new generation of novel and natural ingredients.