Is honey water the silver bullet for full-sugared soft drinks? - NPD trends

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The success of coconut water has spawned a cottage industry in healthy hydrators vying to be the next big thing in soft drinks. Honey water seems an unlikely challenger given concern over sugar, but product launch activity says otherwise. Known as one of the world's oldest beverages, honey water is suddenly trending as a healthy hydrator, immune booster, sustainable energy source and 'touch of sweetness' drink with the natural goodness of honey.

Honey is no longer limited to just hot drinks - say hello to honey water

Honey is no longer limited to just hot drinks - say hello to honey water

The concept of 'everything that is really old is new again' keeps resurfacing in the world of new fast-moving consumer goods. Honey water is the latest update to the script. Used for centuries in Ayurvedic medicine, honey water is flavoured by one of the world's oldest food sources. Humans have been harvesting honey for more than 5,000 years, although drinking honey - outside of as a sweetener for tea - may strike Western consumers as odd.

Humans have actually been drinking honey for thousands of years. In Ancient Greece, athletes mixed honey with water for a hydrating energy boost when competing in the Olympic Games. Honey was also used in medicine over 2,000 years ago, helping to explain how this sweet nectar came to be associated with health and fitness. Hippocrates is said to have prescribed honey to remedy medical issues like fevers, ulcers, and injuries. 

Honey is still used today to alleviate health issues, especially issues associated with the common cold as honey helps coat and soothe sore throats. But, honey's healthiness ascent in soft drinks may have more to do with changing views on sweeteners than its intrinsic health properties. Honey delivers sweetness in a more natural fashion than either refined sugar or high-fructose corn syrup, both of which are often associated with health issues and high calorie counts.

Honey may be treated differently by the body than other sweeteners. It has a slightly lower glycemic index than sucrose and glucose; according to the University of Sydney, pure honey has a glycemic index of 58 versus a value of 58-to-65 for sucrose (table sugar) and 100 for glucose (which is the benchmark for the glycemic index). The index measures how slowly or quickly a food causes increases in blood glucose levels with a lower number - indicating a slower increase - preferable to a higher number.

Honey water innovators have generally downplayed the glycemic index, instead focusing on honey water's refreshment and energy-enhancement benefits. This is the path that the makers of Just Bee honey water have taken. Launched in the UK in 2015, Just Bee is one of the honey water category's pioneers. The brand was re-launched last year with a new identity and packaging for its blueberry, lemon & lime, and apple & ginger flavours.

Elevating the bee to 'hero' status (which is timely given concern over colony collapse disorder), Just Bee re-focused on the low calorie content (fewer than 50 calories per 33cl carton), low sugar content (less than 4g of sugar per 10cl) and its avoidance of refined sugar or artificial sweeteners. More recently, Just Bee has moved away from the verbiage 'honey water', replacing it with 'infused water', presumably to buttress the brand's refreshment credentials and avoid having to explain the honey water concept to the uninitiated. Just Bee starts with spring water, which is infused with fruits and a single drop of honey.

Ironically, the brand's verbiage change comes just as a wave of new honey waters hits the market.

Blume honey water is one of the new honey waters making inroads into the US market, picking up regional distribution in retailers like Whole Foods and Giant Eagle. The Pennsylvania-based company of the same name believes that its brand has the potential to go beyond niche status and appeal to a mass audience demanding quality and social responsibility. Blume honey water blends water and "bee-friendly" honey with fruit ingredients for a natural, healthy hydration option. With less than 100 calories per 10oz serving, Blume hopes to connect with women between the ages of 18 and 40, with flavours like vanilla citrus, wild blueberry and ginger zest.

"We're tapping on the door of coconut water" says Blume co-founder Carla Frank. "Honey is a beloved substance around the world, used in beauty and food. It also burns in your system differently than refined sugar," Frank continues, suggesting that honey may be able to avoid the negativity associated with refined sugar. Blume hopes to position itself as a cut above other thirst quenchers, claiming it provides "elegant sustainable energy" and "artisanal hydration".

Bee's Water is another honey water newcomer. Recently launched by New Jersey-based Bees Beverage Corp, Bee's Water is "antioxidant-rich honey water" offering "honey health in a bottle" with no refined sugar, high fructose corn syrup or artificial sweeteners. Plastic shrink-wrapped bottles are colour-coded by flavour for the line's original, cinnamon, blueberry, orange and lemon flavours. With 85 calories or less per 16oz bottle, Bee's Water tops out at 22 grams or less of sugar per bottle and can be consumed cold or hot. When served hot, the drink is said to be "soothing and calming".

According to Henry Owunna, founder & CEO of Bee's Water: "I grew up with honey water in Nigeria. My grandmother would make it for me when I was sick, as a natural remedy." Owunna noted with some surprise that "nobody was making it at the time (in the US)". Like some other honey waters, Bee's water takes a 'hybrid thirst quencher and health booster' position. The brand plays up honey's natural amino acids, antioxidant vitamins A, C, and E, proteins and enzymes. Unlike most of its peers, Bee's Water is recommended for use before exercise as well as after. The reasoning for the former is that honey is full of natural energy that is released into muscles at a steady rate, delaying fatigue.

The honey/sports connection could grow in time if product launches like BeeBad energy drink are successful. New in Italy, the US and the UK, BeeBad is a slightly sparkling energy drink from Italy's Parodi Group that is sweetened entirely with honey. Featuring a cocktail of natural energy drink ingredients like royal jelly, propolis and maca extract, along with ginseng and vitamins, BeeBad is staking out a market position as the "first completely natural energy drink". The brand has recently inked a three-year sponsorship deal with major European football team Juventus.

While it's still early days to chart the sales trajectory of honey water, early signs are encouraging. In April, Canada's HoneyWater posted an impressive 400% sales increase over the previous six months. At the time, the brand was celebrating its success at Whole Foods locations in the greater Toronto area. Offered in lemon & honey and mint & honey flavours, the "bee-friendly" drink has been available in Canada since 2015, recently expanding its distribution to Western Canada.

Honey enjoys rare iconic status in the world of sweeteners. According to a Q1 2017 GlobalData survey, 63% of US consumers - and 77% of consumers globally - believe that honey has a positive impact on health, the only sweetener that a majority of consumers see in a positive health light. For perspective, 36% of Americans said that agave syrup or nectar has a positive impact on health, the next best sweetener.

This iconic status suggests that honey water may have room to run, with the current wave of honey water innovators likely to be followed by others.

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