Probiotics’ transition from emerging ingredient to entrenched health trend has been a decade-long journey that began in the yogurt aisle and has now spread across the store.
As numerous clinical studies confirm the gut benefits touted by brands, probiotics’ popularity with consumers has rocketed and the inclusion of these tiny gut bugs in beverage has sent waves through the industry as brands hope to build out to the $7 billion that probiotic yogurt and kefir category now represent. Kombucha has led the charge of late, and it is now regularly found throughout the conventional drug, grocery and an increasing set of convenience channels. With sales surging annually, probiotics’ true drinkable moment may be happening now as brands enthusiastically add “live” beverages to their portfolios.
With innovators developing new ways to introduce the beneficial germs to beverages, more established brands are getting in on the trend with new lines of probiotic beverages. In October, PepsiCo introduced Tropicana Probiotic to juice aisles across channels. Harmless Harvest recently released a new line, Harmless Coconut Probiotics. Suja, among many others, has significantly grown its probiotic offerings over the last year, with waters, juices, and drinking vinegars all promising consumers better gut health with less added sugar.
A look at the sales data can explain why brands are getting in right now. As of February, market research firm SPINS reports that refrigerated probiotic juices and functional beverages have grown by 31.2 percent — more than $100 million in sales — since last year. Probiotic plant-based milks and creamers are up 269.7 percent, shelf stable functional beverages are up 140.5 percent, and shelf stable water is up a whopping 740 percent, going from a $200,000 category to one worth $1.8 million in a calendar year.
Beverages may still pale compared to yogurt and kefir, but the category has become the new speartip for probiotic growth.
According to SPINS analyst Judy Seybold, the bevy of new products at Natural Products Expo West 2017 substantiates the sales data. Probiotic waters, she said, were a big feature of the show.
“Probiotics were in numerous waters, that was definitely the overarching theme there,” Seybold said.
Part of the reason for water’s sudden success in the probiotic realm, Seybold says, is its health halo. Because it is contains no calories and is viewed as one of the healthiest beverages, consumers are drawn to more functional waters with added benefits.
Among the companies that introduced probiotic waters at Expo West is New Age Beverages Corporation, which launched the new line under its Aspen Pure brand.
“If you look at the key drivers of purchase intent in food and beverages these days, probiotic is really up there in the top five,” said New Age Beverages CEO Brent Willis. “We saw it in other categories, that was one impetus [to create a water].”
Meanwhile, long-time beverage innovator C.J. Rapp, the inventor of Jolt Cola several decades ago, suddenly finds himself with a growing brand: Karma Water’s probiotic cap infused line.
“I’m on trend,” Rapp chuckles. “Who would have figured?
According to Seybold, the two main drivers pushing probiotics into beverage are “bioavailability and survivability.” As recent as six years ago, introducing probiotics into non-dairy beverages was much harder, but because of scientific advancements in food technology, such as the advent of microencapsulation, the category has exploded.
“What they were searching for six, seven years ago, was a kind of microencapsulation that would help preserve the strain to ensure it delivered the health benefit,” Seybold said. “There was no health value if it couldn’t deliver and survive.”
One company that has made major innovations in probiotics is Ganeden, which among other breakthroughs pioneered probiotics that can resist pasteurization.
“Up until our entrance in the market around 2007, there was really no good way to put a probiotic into something like a coconut water, for example,” said Ganeden president Mike Bush. “So we did some work and we were the first company to add a probiotic into the HPP process.”
With consumers interest piqued by the promise of gut health, probiotic beverages are now taking the place of supplements for many people, Bush said. As research studies vindicate the functional benefit claims made by brands, beverages are becoming a go-to.
Bush, who also serves as the executive board president of the International Probiotics Association, said the ignition moment for the current wave of probiotic food and beverage products was the entry of Dannon’s Activia yogurt into the U.S. market in the early 2000’s. It was these early food products that put in the money and effort to advertise and define the word “probiotic” for consumers. Since consumers are already educated, with mainstream press consistently touting the benefits of probiotics, it has made the transition into beverages smooth.
“I think you’re seeing that there are people who prefer the beverage route rather than taking a tablet or a capsule,” Bush said.
Younger consumers interested in fitness and clean eating are also a big sales driver. Deanna Fleming, vice president of marketing and innovation at Harmless Harvest, singled out millennials as being particularly interested in getting active health benefits from their drinks.
For Tropicana, a PepsiCo spokesperson told BevNET that it was this expedient rise of functional beverages that prompted the company to add a probiotic juice line. Functional juices alone are now growing at twice the rate of the overall juice category and Tropicana is the first mainstream probiotic drink to hit juice aisles. For PepsiCo, probiotics are also another step in their push towards providing healthy and better-for-you food and beverage options. In November, the soda giant acquired KeVita, a maker of probiotic drinks and kombucha, and the company plans to continue innovating within the probiotic space.
For companies that have been in the probiotic business for years, such as juice drink brand GoodBelly, the rising popularity has taken on a “rising tide lifts all boats” effect, even as more competition floods the market. Alan Murray, CEO of GoodBelly parent company Next Foods, told BevNET he’s even called up beverage companies entering the probiotic category to welcome them in.
“I guess five years ago we were about the only guy out there beating the drum for probiotics, and now it’s good having a couple other guys joining the chorus,” Murray said. “It’s difficult to pioneer a category without much support, so we laud the inclusion of others in the game.”
Murray said he sees probiotics as a natural benefactor of the greater nationwide trends towards healthy eating and transparency in food and beverage. Younger people are more likely to read labels and they are demanding authenticity.
As other sales in other juice categories continue to decline, Murray sees a bright future for probiotics.
“There’s not that many other products in the beverage world where you actually feel something happen when you drink it,” he said.