By Aaron Dentel-Post
It soothes scorched and sunburned skin and takes the rage out of a rash, but now aloe vera is taking an even juicier role on the summer stage as an increasingly popular drink. Awash with speculation on a plethora of rumored health benefits, aloe nevertheless may fall short of a miracle cure, but producers say it does help with digestion and vitamin absorption. While there may not be enough clinical data to say for sure on many of the wilder claims, the fact remains that it’s a fast-growing ingredient, and beverages made with it are finding increasing acceptance.
While the American market is still second fiddle to interest from Asian countries, aloe’s U.S. numbers are looking stronger, and its taste becoming more mainstream. Introduced approximately seven years ago to U.S. markets by SPI West Port Inc., the first aloe drink was initially targeted at Asian-American and Latin-American consumers because many were already familiar with the ingredient from a cultural standpoint.
“We felt that the product really had legs and that’s when we decided to introduce our own drink,” says Henry Chen, president of SPI West Port. “Late 2008 is when we launched our ALO Drink.”
According to Chen, early aloe distribution in the U.S. centered mostly on concentrates that were sold in health food stores, and people mostly bought them for their health benefits. But consumers who are just interested in the taste and mouth feel are joining the health conscious ones. Now, aloe drinks are just now moving into mainstream markets, where they’re catching on.
“We’re seeing some exponential growth,” Chen said. “We’ll at least double our sales from last year.”
Other companies joined the aloe market and began making juices of their own. Vivaloe is another aloe vera drink company that, according to Brett Aaron, its managing director, has experienced phenomenal success, but like ALO, is not looking to promote aloe as a miracle cure. Aaron views aloe vera more as a satisfying ingredient with great mouth feel than a cure-all, he said.
Both companies agree on this point, but they’re not the first to use aloe. Utilized for thousands of years and grown in South America, the Caribbean and Africa, aloe was a commonly prescribed treatment during the 17th and 18th centuries. A perennial plant with long, spiky leaves, it is used to topically treat skin conditions. The most commonly used part of the plant is the gel, which is a watery substance contained within the leaf and surrounded by a layer of meaty aloe latex.
Aloe is added to beverages one of two ways: producers either extract the gel from the leaf and leave the latex, or they grind the entire leaf, including the latex.
ALO uses just the pulp, while Vivaloe grinds the whole leaf, which includes the latex in the final product.
“We grind the whole things,” said Brett Aaron, managing director of Vivaloe. “We’ve been making this beverage for two and a half years and have had no complaints.”
While there is plenty of disagreement on how aloe affects the body, Chen says it is known to aid digestion and help in the absorption of vitamins. But beyond that, he said, there wasn’t much concrete information.
And here’s one more side issue. While latex has historically been used as a laxative, this is now discouraged because of painful cramping side effects, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center’s page on aloe vera.
Moreover, for a product that carries a healthy aura, little is known about its exact benefits. But Aaron says aloe vera contains 16 amino acids and 20 minerals.
“We don’t try to say too much,” he said. “In our eyes, we’re trying to be a soft drink, not a functional drink.”
“I think there is a lot of misinformation concerning aloe vera,” Chen says. “There’s certainly a lot of great things that aloe vera does, but there haven’t been a lot of clinical studies.”
Traveling back and forth from Taiwan, Aaron does say he thinks the aloe he drinks helps stabilize his stomach. But he also says it’s just a plant that’s good for you, not one that works miracles.
“All the miracle cures,” he said. “I’m a pretty healthy guy — but I’m not flying through the air.”
Aaron is earth-bound, but says the aloe market may soon skyrocket. And while aloe is probably not a drink for teenagers, city dwellers in their 20’s, 30’s and 40’s may be the ideal target. What the market size may depend on, though, is how people view aloe vera, and whether they begin to think of it as an ingredient, and not just a cure-all.
“I think, conservatively, it’s a $50 million market in the next 2 years,” he said. “When people get really interested and people start talking about it, that’s when you get the tipping point.”
Chen said that ALO’s next distribution goal is to get the product into more mainstream venues. While the only national chain they are sold in currently is Vitamin Shoppe, they are set to begin national distribution with Safeway in June.
Stefan Kergl, vice president for Beverage World Inc., which distributes ALO Drink in Canada, said that he was interested in aloe drinks from the start. They were already popular in British Columbia, and Kergl says part of the reason he was interested is because it seems to have flexible appeal.
“There’s really not a channel of distribution that aloe doesn’t fit,” he said. “The target market could be skewed as female, but it’s not. Young adults love and comment on the texture, and older adults love the health benefits.”
Stores, Kergl said, are eager to pick up new aloe vera products and that any new flavor or line extension was an easy sell. He said their ALO products are now top selling, even with highly competitive products.
“We’re also exclusive importers of Calypso Lemonade, Tradewinds Ice Tea and Rip It Energy, and ALO is our number one product in terms of sales and of growth,” he said.
Kergl cautiously said that he would put the approximate Canadian market size at one million cases for the aloe vera category and said the U.S. market could be ten times as large. Moreover, Kergl says there seems to be an abundance
of new customers.
“Every day I get an email from ALO with people who are looking for it. Every day.”