Future Forecast: Ingredient and Flavor Trends 2018

If there’s one constant in life, it’s change. The same goes for life in the beverage game.

As we begin the new year, the next 12 months promise to bring more changes and a continued evolution of trends across the ready-to-drink beverage industry. While in some ways beverage consumers are becoming more careful about their consumption habits – checking ingredient labels, reducing sugar intake – in others they are showing a greater willingness to experiment and seek out new experiences. For example, protein, a beverage ingredient long associated with muscle recovery products and meal replacement, is now used to add nutritional value and functionality to waters, coffees and various different ready-to-drink products. Flavors are changing too, as consumers are showing interest in complex experiences that balance savory, sweet, tart and earthy notes.

BevNET reached out to a variety of suppliers, brands, and industry experts to help glean what to expect from food and ingredient trends in 2018.

Protein will be one of the major ingredient trends of 2018. Is anybody surprised?

If so, they shouldn’t be. Protein, as either the basis of a beverage or an added value proposition, has become a major influence in the ready-to-drink product space. As suppliers have pursued technological innovations, the market for protein has expanded to include both animal and plant-based sources, each with different applications, use occasions and target audiences.

Brands and manufacturers will be looking for ways to continue fueling that expansion in 2018. Arla Foods Ingredients, for example, is focused on using a newly developed whey protein product that can be incorporated into colorless liquids. “Over the course of 2018 and beyond, we expect to see a significant increase in launches of whey protein ready-to-drink beverages, with a particular focus on clear protein waters,” said Anne Louise Friis, business development manager at Arla, adding that it has traditionally been challenging to use whey in clear drinks without compromising taste, texture and appearance.

However, it’s plant-based protein sources in particular that have struck a chord with consumers over recent months. From Bolthouse Farms launching a pea protein-based milk to iconic protein shake brand Muscle Milk launching its first plant-based subline, Evolve, the industry as embraced this trend and has plenty of runway to keep growing over the next 12 months. “2018 will be a big year for vegetarian protein sources like pea and hemp, but why protein won’t slow down either,” said Holly McHugh, marketing associate at beverage incubator Imbibe. “Expect to see protein in new beverage applications like waters, chocolate, coffee and tea.”

Alongside protein, collagen has emerged as a rising star. Sourced from fish, bovines, or even plants, this protein is free from additives and is cold soluble, making it ideal for beverage applications. But it’s the range of purported functional benefits, including hair and skin care, that really have ignited its path. Kerry Flavors picked collagen as one of its top functional ingredients in its 2018 Flavor Charts. Last year, collagen protein maker Vital Proteins secured a $19 million investment from CAVU Partners, indicating the ingredient is expected to continue to shape the beverage landscape over the next year. “Beauty enhancing ingredients are becoming more mainstream, and collagen is the rising star,” said McHugh.

Every era has its health crisis, and as obesity rates in the U.S. population continue to soar to epidemic levels, sugar has become public enemy number one. From taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages to falling soft drink sales, all indications are forces touching across all areas of the beverage industry will continue to push for further sugar reduction in 2018.

The simplest way to reduce sugar? Eliminate it altogether. Kristen Wemer, Director and Beverage Architect at Flavorman, noted that manufacturers’ attempts at working with natural sugar substitutes, like stevia and monk fruit, have not been widely accepted by consumers. In some cases, simply moving to a completely unsweetened formulation could make the difference. “Set off by the seltzer craze, we are seeming consumers demanding unsweetened teas, cocktails, and even energy drinks,” Wemer said in an email. She noted that the challenge, particularly for beverage products with functional ingredients, will be to emphasize great flavor (and mask undesirable ones) without using sweeteners.

McHugh agreed with Wemer’s assessment. She noted that brands across all beverage categories are looking to integrate new low or no-sugar SKUs or reformulate existing ones. “The new/replacement products will be sweetened with natural non-nutritive sweeteners, lightly sweetened, or contain no sweetener at all.”

In pushing sugar down, manufacturers will be looking for new natural sweeteners to replace it with. The Specialty Food Association’s Trendspotter Panel, which includes experts from retail, foodservice, strategic marketing and culinary education, included the continued rise of “alt-sweet” as one of its food and beverage trend predictions for 2018. “Syrups made from dates, sorghum, and even yacon and sun root will join monk fruit on the market as emerging options for sweet,” the panel said in a release.

As consumers gravitate away from sugary drinks and towards better-for-you beverages, product labeling has begun to play a more critical role in communicating information about sourcing, allergens, business practices and much more. The movement towards “clean label” products that emphasize transparent and responsible use of ingredients is set to continue in 2018.

Anne Louise Friis of Arla Foods Ingredients told BevNET that over the next 12 months there will be an escalation of the “clean label” trend to a new level, with consumers increasingly seeking on-package certifications of proper sourcing and responsible production. “Beverage companies need to be ready to answer those questions, and they can only do that if they ensure they source their ingredients from suppliers they can trust,” she wrote in an email.

According to Kristen Wermer of Flavorman, ingredient labels are likely to get simpler and simpler. As they do, consumer habits are reflecting their value. “We are seeing people sacrifice function, appearance, and sometimes taste for the sake of a clean, easy-to-read ingredient statement,” she wrote in an email.

Meanwhile, the Specialty Food Association’s Trendspotter Panel took a slightly different stance in noting that “more is more” when it comes to product labeling. “Consumers will seek greater on-label visibility in the farms, ingredient sources, and supply chain of each item in their shopping basket,” the group stated in its list of trend predictions.

While functional drinks as a whole have shown strong momentum, beverages that aimed specifically at promoting digestive health have been among the main drivers of that segment. Kombucha, drinking vinegar and probiotic-enhanced drinks have found a widening audience of consumers; according to a study by Survey Sampling International, 70 percent of consumers prefer to consume probiotics in a food or beverage as opposed to a supplement.

“We’ll continue to see beverages like juices, teas, coffees, creamers and more fortified with probiotics, as well as naturally occurring probiotics in beverages like kombucha and drinking vinegar,” said McHugh, adding that prebiotics will also be appearing in more beverage products.

Kristen Wemer of Flavorman agreed. “Instead of indulgent products that taste delicious but make you feel terrible afterward, we are seeing light, pleasant-tasting beverages that can make you feel better after consuming,” she wrote.

If you were skeptical about the potential of plant-based functionality in beverages, 2017 should have made you a believer. Following in the path of aloe vera several years ago, ginger and turmeric were two of the hottest ingredients in beverage over the past year, and many are predicting that the next wave of functional botanicals and adaptogens will take off over the next 12 months.

For beverage makers, part of the appeal of these ingredients— such as lavender, elderflower, ashwagandha and curcurmin, to name a few— is their versatility. McHugh predicted that floral flavors will become more prevalent in juices, teas, lemonades and enhanced waters. As consumers continue to seek out functional benefits from their drinks, adaptogenic herbs present an opportunity to tick off that box while adhering to “clean label” guidelines. “Lavender supports stress relief, elderflower has antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties, and rose is suggested to improve hair, skin and nails and aid with digestive issues.”

Underscoring their versatility, botanical and floral ingredients are trending upwards in both hot and cold beverages. According to the 2018 Kerry Flavor Charts, juniper, dandelion, rosemary, lemongrass and basil are among the 20 fastest growing flavors in dairy and hot beverages over the last year. Meanwhile, lavender, rose, hibiscus and cardamom are three of the 20 fastest growing flavors in the last three years. Within cold and water drinks, elderflower, honeysuckle, rosemary, jasmine blossom, violet and thyme are all showing notable growth as well, according to Kerry.

With the increasing popularity of beverage categories like kombucha and drinking vinegars, consumers have gradually warmed to the idea of incorporating bolder, more complex flavors into their beverages. That trend looks set to continue in the coming year.

In the 2018 edition of Kerry Flavors’ annual Flavor Charts, several deep, earthy flavors are identified as one of the 20 fastest growing flavors in the last year. In dairy and hot beverages, these flavors include black pepper, licorice and smoke. For water and cold beverages, spicier flavors like ancho chili, habanero and cayenne were listed alongside more esoteric tastes, like sumac and celery bitters. Meanwhile, a variety of mushrooms – including reishi, chaga, lion’s mane and cordyceps – were showcased as top functional ingredients.

Though we don’t expect to see everyone drinking mushroom-based beverages by this time next year, there is rising momentum behind these flavors thanks in part to their association with natural wellness. “Flavors like maple syrup, ginger, turmeric and reishi mushroom are still growing in popularity, all of which have deep, earthy flavors that typically imply some health benefits,” Wemer said.

As beverage companies look to reduce their reliance on sugar, they may begin to look closer at tart flavors to infuse drinks with taste and complexity. The growing popularity of kombucha and other fermented drinks that play in that space is one example of that trend playing out.

“Flavors like grapefruit, apple cider vinegar, lemon and hibiscus continue to be popular, especially in unsweetened products where the lack of sugar and, often, presence of carbonation really makes the tartness stand out,” said Kristen Wemer.