Who Needs Food Anyways?

More than likely, you’ve done it yourself – you’re running out the door in the morning and you just don’t have time to eat breakfast. So what to do? You run into the corner store, head to the cooler, and you drink your breakfast through the rest of your commute.

With a variety of drinkable shakes, yogurts, soups, and broths in stores today there’s a rapidly growing market for meal replacements. According to Michael Averbook, food and drink analyst for Mintel, the nutritional drinks segment, which includes meal replacements, is one of the fastest growing segments in the nutrition and performance drinks category. In 2016, it reached $3.8 billion, a 60 percent increase since 2011.

But who’s skipping all these meals? Americans from all walks of life, it turns out: kids, seniors, moms-on-the-run, gamers, athletes – it just depends on what need their drinkable meal is filling. And, as if anyone expected it to be any other consumer group, it’s millennials who are doing the most to drive sales of meal replacements today. Whether it’s weight loss, quick nutrition, or the need for healthy snacks, Averbrook noted, there are many qualities that the products in the category strive to offer to keep these consumers coming back.

“Consumers who purchase meal replacement drinks highlight high protein, low/no sugar, and low calorie as important attributes when purchasing nutritional or performance drinks,” Averbrook told BevNET. “Meal replacement drink brands with reduced calorie and sugar options and high protein claims may outperform others. Innovation in flavors and nutrition content may further help meal replacement drink brands.”

So, which brands are the players in this foodless revolution and whose specific needs are they targeting?

When talking about meal replacements today, it’s impossible not to discuss the Silicon elephant in the room. Soylent, which in May picked up $50 million in a funding round led by GV (formerly Google Ventures), entered the market with a tech-based to way disrupt the very concept of food. By breaking down the chemical components of food, and blending them all together into a soy-based shake, founder Rob Reinhart initially presented Soylent as a beverage that could theoretically replace your entire diet by providing the full gamut of nutrients and calories required by the human body.

Early adopters from the online gaming and coding community took kindly to the proudly genetically-engineered product – after all, Reinhart was one of their own – and very quickly a Soylent web community formed on Reddit.com where fans shared their take on the latest products, their experiments with all-Soylent diets, and recipes for DIY Soylent shakes.

After gaining some public notoriety, the company is now making a pivot toward the mainstream. This past spring, Rhinehart told BevNET that he envisions Soylent being available everywhere coffee is sold, and in July the company announced it would make its first play in retail through Los Angeles-area 7-Eleven stores.

According to Chief Marketing Officer Adam Grablick, gamers make up a key part of Soylent’s demographic, as the largely young, male audience appreciates a nutritional and preparation-free way to get their daily nutrition.

“However, many people don’t realize how pervasive gaming culture has become,” Grablick told BevNET. This is not a fringe audience. Gamers are in the mainstream.”

With nearly 100 million Americans actively playing video games, about 60 percent of gamers are in Soylent’s core 18-34-year-old demographic, Grablick said.

“Reaching out to this captive and informed audience will get us in the hands and homes of a slew of new consumers,” he added.

In early June, the company brought on former KeVita strategist Bryan Crowley to serve as president. At the end of that month, Soylent announced its new Coffiest Cafe line, introducing coffee-flavored Vanilla and Chai varieties that are making a play for the ever-expanding need for consumers to replace breakfast with a grab-and-go product – perhaps because they’ve been up all night, shooting at each other with virtual lasers.

While Soylent may be the big new brand innovating in the category, protein drinks are one of the classic meal replacements, and the field for them is well established. Athletes looking for pre- and post-workout shakes have long been the top consumers, and brands like Muscle Milk and Labrada have long tried to fulfill those needs.

But clean-eating trends have also helped drive non-athletes to protein shakes. Primal Fuel, maker of a whey protein isolate-based powdered protein shake, has made recovery and wellness its key focus. According to founder Mark Sisson, Primal Fuel’s top consumers are well-educated and aware of the specific nutrients they’re seeking out to help their bodies. Many are seeking out gluten-free or low-sugar options or simply seeking to fill out a clean-eating based diet, for example, paleo eaters.

“In the absence of my accessing real food, because I’m either not near my house or kitchen, I want to know what I can consume that tastes great and has a list of ingredients that I would be happy and proud to defend my choice,” Sisson said.

Rebbl, maker of herb and coconut-milk-based elixirs, has introduced a protein line with beverages containing between 12g and 16g of protein per 12 oz. bottle. According to co-founder and chief innovation officer Palo Hawken, Rebbl’s healthy fats are a big selling point for consumers who are waking up to the realization that the pendulum of health science is swinging back in favor of fat, after decades of demonization.

“All of the progressive health practitioners are looking at what the current research says and are coming to the conclusion that ‘fat-phobia’ as a kind of cultural move has absolutely no credible medical foundation – none,” Hawken said. “And saturated fats are actually some of the healthiest things the human body can consume.”

Dairy producers are also pushing protein drinks across gender lines; Organic Valley’s Organic Balance protein shakes are marketed as meal replacements for women, while their Organic Fuel drinks (as well as Fairlife’s Core Power products) attempt to “Save the Bros” with their high protein content.

Beyond fat and protein, vegetables are also pretty healthy, and they are fueling one of the more unlikely categories to pick up serious steam in the last few years, drinkable soups. With a cold-pressed generation spearheaded by Tio Gazpacho, drinkable soups have straddled the line between food and beverage but have managed to find a “best of both worlds” cubby where they’ve quickly attracted a loyal and growing consumer base.

Tio itself is relatively young, but has started to be more aggressive from a distribution standpoint since it closed a $1.25 million funding round in 2016.

According to its founder, Austin Allan, Tio has proven popular in particular with office workers looking for a sippable meal replacement without loads of sugar. But, he added, the brand’s diehard consumers range from children to mothers to senior citizens.

“People want something savory,” Allan told BevNET. “That sounds like a simple proposition, but there’s not a lot of savory options out there. Traditionally what people would reach for prior to a soup is a (nutrition) bar, which is generally sweet, a juice, which is generally sweet, or a yogurt, which also tends to be sweet. It’s just lots of sweet options and I think we’re filling a need that people have really wanted.”

There’s more than one way to serve a soup, of course. While Allan sees drinkable soups as a proper meal replacement, other brands, such as Fawen and Zupa Noma, have recommended consumers drink their product as meal complements or as snacks. Jen Berliner, vice president of marketing at Zupa Noma, said drinkable soups are beginning to take the place of less healthy midday snacks for many professional consumers looking for alternatives to lattes, chips, and sugary juices. While there remains a strong need for consumer education, Berliner added, once shoppers try the product, it frequently finds its way into their daily rituals.

“Once consumers find a usage occasion, it works,” she said.

 

While drinkable soups have more recently made a play for the everyday consumer, bone broth has become a favorite of some edgier health and wellness trend followers, and their blog communities.

Today, the online blogosphere remains essential to spreading these concepts and influencing food philosophy. Bonafide Provisions Co-founder Alexandra Rains called their top consumer group “the wellness warriors” who are dedicated to the natural lifestyle.

Like the vegetable-heavy drinkable soups category, the thinner bone broth also straddles a line between meal replacement, complement, and snack, but its adherents have adopted it as an essential diet item – using it as an ingredient for everything from cocktails to waffles.

Bonafide Provisions has recently launched a ready-to-drink, high pressure processed broth and vegetable juice line called Drinkable Veggies. The company recommends the drinks as an ideal product for a cleanse or as a weight loss beverage that will provide nutrition with limited calories. As well, the line has been promoted as a meal complement, a workout beverage, and an on-the-go snack.

“We had seen a need in our clients as nutritionists and they would ask us what they could drink,” Rains said. “We would say ‘well, you can drink water, you can’t have the sugar-filled juices on the market.’ So we decided we were going to make something for them.”

Calling it a “21st century V8,” Rains said the line could also be a gateway for new consumers into bone broth.

“We have always gone deep with our audience instead of wide,” Rains said. “We target the people who are our tribe – the paleo users, the Whole30ers, the food-as-medicine users who are always looking for what is functional and what’s next and what’s best. They’re really who we were targeting with this innovation, and once they latch on they start to influence the wider demographic.”

In many parts of Europe, drinkable yogurt is an established, even essential product. As Siggi’s founder and CEO Siggi Hilmarsson tells it, in his native Iceland, many consumers will pour yogurt over cereal instead of milk. But in America, the beverage remains relatively obscure, its growth taking a backseat to the Greek Yogurt boom of the past decade.

Today, alongside kefir, drinkable yogurts are starting to gain footing in the U.S. market, with more companies, including Siggi’s, introducing single-serve grab-and-go options for the consumer on the move.

Julia Meck, founding partner of Maple Hill Creamery, said the seven-year-old company views their drinkable yogurt offerings as both snacks and as meal replacements, depending on a consumer’s appetite. On its website, the company calls its line of drinkables a “100 percent grass-fed meal-in-a-bottle.”

“It’s the convenience for when you’re running out the door, you grab it out of the fridge, chug it down, you’re getting on the train or the bus, you don’t need a spoon,” Meck said.

Drinkable yogurts have a wide consumer base, Meck said, but one of the top groups is millennials. Young professionals, moms, teenagers, and athletes are all frequent buyers. And while the category is nascent, it is growing steadily, bolstered by larger brands such as Chobani, Yoplait, and Lifeway who have introduced drinkables to their mainstream yogurt lines.

“I think it took some time, it wasn’t a normal thing,” Meck said. “But I feel like other brands that are bigger than us have launched drinkable yogurts and that has helped put it on the map, and that has helped us to build the value in our SKU.”

While drinkable yogurt has tended to portray itself domestically, as much a snack for children as for busy moms, other companies are looking to expand the consumer base. Florida-based Powerful Yogurt promotes itself as both a yogurt and a protein drink, offering 20g of protein in each of its drinks.

With a bullhorns logo on its black bottle, the company attempts to appeal to both athletes and energy-seeking consumers. Founder and CEO Carlos Ramirez told BevNET that when the company first launched, it presented itself as a yogurt for men, in order to counter the female-centric advertising narrative that has long dominated the yogurt category. But since launching in 2012, Ramirez said that the brand has found a near-equal gender balance among its consumers.

“We have women saying ‘hey, I’m powerful too,’” Ramirez said. “But we also have active guys. The ironmen, all those guys are really hardcore and they use our product a lot.”