The complete guide to functional drinks

01 March 2024, 07:00 AM
  • Functional drinks are one of the hottest trends right now, with more consumers seeking healthier options, and younger generations choosing to ‘sober socialise’. Speciality Food finds out everything fine food retailers need to know
The complete guide to functional drinks

From CBD to the power of mushrooms and fermented foods, drink makers using natural ingredients that boast health benefits have been racing to fill a profitable gap in the market.

Not only is a healthy revolution underway, with more and more consumers choosing to avoid ultra-processed foods in favour of natural goodness, but many are opting to drink less alcohol, with low-ABV and alcohol-free options taking off, especially among younger generations. Recent research from Mintel attributes this to the ‘sober socialising’ trend, with Generation Z saving alcoholic drinks for treats or special occasions. 

Now, with quality soft drinks in higher demand than ever, there’s good reason for retailers to build out their offering with functional additions to their shelves. In a sector full of buzzwords, Speciality Food breaks down the trend with our guide to functional drinks.

What is a functional drink?

A functional drink is any drink that has added ingredients that offer specific physiological or health benefits, beyond taste and hydration. Functional ingredients include CBD, herbs and adaptogenic ingredients like mushrooms, L-theanine and a whole host of natural ingredients from ashwagandha to valerian. 

“They all offer different feelings, such as energising, relaxation and even GABA stimulating, in which the combination of ingredients stimulates your GABA receptor, giving the relaxed feeling you get from your first drink,” explains Laura Willoughby, founder of Club Soda, a shop selling non-alcoholic drinks, including many mood-boosting functional beverages.

Whether they’re meant to boost your gut health or improve clarity and focus, functional drinks not only offer good-for-you ingredients, but they are also a fast-growing category – with Eoin Keenan, founder of the CBD brand Goodrays, citing a 42% growth rate, outstripping the 10% growth of the overall soft drinks market.

“Frequency and rate of sale of traditional ‘unhealthy’ soft drinks is on the decline,” adds Emma Thackray, founder of kombucha drink Hip Pop. “We’ve seen rate of sale decline by 12% in the last 12 months for drinks that are household names – this would have been unthinkable only a couple of years ago. Functional drinks are on the rise and taking their place.”

“Retailers across the UK are capitalising on this and are looking to provide functional beverages for every need state in their stores, leading to more NPD and innovation in the space,” Eoin adds. Waitrose has even created a ‘functional drinks bay’ featuring CBD, kombucha, vitamin drinks, clean energy drinks and more. 

As Urvashi Agarwal, founder of JP’s Originals artisan tea says, “More drinks now than ever are consumed for their ‘function’, as opposed to flavour.” But with so many options, where is a retailer to start?

What are the types of functional drink?

Today, there’s a drink for everything, whether you need to sleep better or improve your digestion. “Consumers can find a drink to provide the support they need, whether it be for sleep or anxiety or mental sharpness. We found the most popular to be sleep, inflammation, energy, mental clarity, digestion and hormonal imbalances,” says Urvashi. 

“The end goal is to make you feel better – mentally or physically.”

CBD drinks

CBD is a chemical substance found in cannabis that has been shown to reduce anxiety, improve sleep and even help with pain management, and it has been growing in popularity for a number of years. “We can’t get enough CBD products in the door,” says Laura.

“Consumer knowledge and sophistication around CBD is high, and demand matches this,” she adds.

Several drink styles are already using CBD to enhance their relaxation qualities, such as TRIP’s canned sodas and JP’s Originals CBD teas and infusions. “Most brands are in cans, but we know people are looking for beers (we have one from Brulo) and spirits with CBD in,” Laura adds.

For retailers looking to test out CBD products in their shop, Eoin says drinks are the perfect place to start. “CBD drinks have become the easiest way for the CBD-curious consumer to try the ingredient for the first time at an accessible price point.” 

Natural energy drinks

While many of us rely on a boost from our morning brew or even a can of sugary energy drink, it’s a well-known fact that caffeine can have negative side effects, such as anxiety or restlessness. This is driving more consumers to look for caffeine-free alternatives, such as natural energy drinks, which are one of the most common products in the functional drinks sector.

So how are functional drinks different to energy drinks? “Nootropics are a good alternative for those looking for increased energy without that dreaded caffeine crash,” says Kyle Crowley, nutrition expert at Protein Works. “They are functional drinks that aid cognitive function and help boost energy by containing the perfect ratio of L-theanine to caffeine (2:1). L-theanine then works synergistically with caffeine to increase focus, while also offsetting the jittery effect one often experiences after consuming caffeine,” he says. 

According to Rahi Daneshmand of Virtue Drinks, the future for energy drinks is clean, citing a key trend as “cleaner drinks with more natural ingredients offering health benefits, including ingredient-forward drinks, which allow consumers to know more about what they are drinking.” Virtue Drinks, for example, use yerba mate. “Yerba mate-based drinks have a wide range of health benefits, including more antioxidants than green tea – these antioxidants are an important part of a healthy immune system – essential vitamins and minerals and 15 amino acids.”

“One of my favourite functional drinks at the moment is DIRTEA’s Matcha super blend, which combines ceremonial-grade matcha green tea with a superstar range of herbs and functional mushrooms to deliver long-lasting energy and calm, collected brain power,” says Clarissa Berry, nutritionist for DIRTEA, a range of adaptogenic powders and blends.

“Matcha provides an immense antioxidant hit and an energy lift, lion’s mane stimulates cognition, reishi relieves stress and promotes a calm mind, tremella supports immunity and beautiful skin, moringa offers a powerful nutrient boost, while MCT oil provides instant fuel for brain cells,” she adds.

Adaptogen drinks

Adaptogens are certain herbs and mushrooms believed to have health benefits, including around stress management and boosting immunity, and they’re increasingly common in wellness-focused drinks.

One adaptogen you may already have on your shelves is turmeric. “Turmeric has been utilised around the world for its many health benefits for a long time, and I personally discovered it during my career as a professional footballer, using it to help my recovery with injury and general strength and joint care,” says Thomas Hal Robson Kanu, founder and CEO of The Turmeric Co

“Traditionally, turmeric has been used for joint health, digestive disorders, immune system support and to fight fatigue, but in recent years it’s become a key ingredient within functional drinks including shots such as those created by The Turmeric Co.”

Another example is Fungtn, an adaptogenic drink using mushrooms, which Laura says is the shop’s second-biggest selling non-alcoholic beer. “It uses different adaptogenic mushrooms to not only create a health benefit but enhance the flavour and texture of the beer, which is why it has lots of fans!”

Fermented drinks

“Fermented beverages, such as kombucha, promote gut health, digestion and boost our immune system,” says Karine Patel, registered dietitian and founder of Dietitian Fit

Kombucha has gained popularity in recent years, but if you’re still new to its gently sparkling, fermented charms, it’s time to get acquainted. “This fermented tea-like beverage is rich in beneficial probiotics and antioxidants, helping to kill harmful bacteria and aiding gut health. As well as being beneficial to gut health, kombucha has similar benefits to green tea meaning it can improve cholesterol levels and help with blood sugar control,” Kyle says.

Hip Pop drinks “have been created to be net positive for gut health – as well as probiotics, some have added fibre (also known as prebiotics),” says Emma.

Nicola Hart, founder of Agua de Madre, a live fermented water kefir, says products like hers aren’t only beneficial due to their “billions of probiotic live cultures” which are great for gut health, but they also “hit the spot as a naturally refreshing drink with a delicious fruity, yeasty flavour.”

“It is more of an alcohol replacement for all occasions but with added healthy benefits,” Nicola adds.

Gut-friendly drinks

In addition to gut-healthy fermented drinks like kombucha and kefir, other probiotic drinks and yogurts help with our microbiome, digestion and immunity, says Karine of Dietitian Fit.

Living Things is a prebiotic soda, and co-founder Ben Vear says supporting gut health contributes to our overall wellbeing, and he says improved digestion is one of the key benefits of functional drinks.

“Additionally, the probiotics in functional drinks help to balance the gut flora, which can support a stronger immune system and even improve mental clarity. Unlike sugary sodas or juices, functional drinks are a smarter choice for those looking to optimise their health without sacrificing taste,” Ben says. “There is even a rising trend of consumers selecting functional drinks as alcohol mixers, a move that would look to replace sugary drinks for good.”

Protein drinks

Protein shakes are nothing new, but they’re a good fit for the functional category as demand for high-protein products grows. “For functional drinks that contain protein, opt for protein shakes,” suggests Kyle. “These are a convenient way to increase protein intake in a nutritious and quick-to-make shake.” However, there are also innovative products like protein water from Vieve.

Those leading an active lifestyle will also be on the lookout for drinks that improve their recovery, like BCAA drinks. “These products, often sold as supplements one can mix with water, are rich in amino acids which can support muscle recovery and help reduce muscle soreness.”

Drinks to promote relaxation

“A functional drink designed to calm the body and mind to prepare for sleep might contain herbs, nutrients and active compounds that are known to aid relaxation and sleep, such as reishi mushroom, CBD or ashwagandha,” says DIRTEA’s Clarissa.

Laura from Club Soda says other relaxation-focused drinks that are selling well in her shop are Impossibrew, a popular non-alcoholic beer that promises relaxation and contains amongst other things L-theanine, the relaxing component in tea, and GABA-enhancing drinks. “We sell Sentia and Haelu, and both promise to stimulate your GABA receptors (the neurotransmitters responsible for relaxation) the same way as your first drink, but no more.” 

However, this is one for the consumers who know their stuff. “It all gets nice and geeky and sciencey, and so customers seek it out once they have read about them,” she says.

Bone broth

The bone broth trend fits in well with the rise in functional drinks, as consumers are beginning to recognise the health benefits of this product. “Bone broth is the original ‘functional drink’ and has formed the foundation of our cuisines and good health for centuries,” says Jess Higgins, co-founder of Freja. “Our ancestors figured out that simmering animal bones for hours and hours would help them extract essential nutrients and flavour to create a nourishing and delicious broth.”

This broth, she says, boasts a huge range of health benefits, from supporting gut health or immunity to easing joint pain and creating glowing skin.

“Bone broth is packed with collagen, protein, amino acids and hydrating electrolytes, like calcium and magnesium. Because bone broth extracts the nutrients from bone and cartilage, it has a different nutritional profile to meat. Bone broth is not only packed with protein, it’s also an important source of collagen and gelatine, which include the amino acids glycine and proline. Bone broth also has a higher concentration of electrolyte minerals such as potassium and magnesium,” Jess says.

Functional plant-based milk

Yes, even plant-based milks are going functional. Persistence Market Research notes a “surge” in fortified and functional plant-based milk products, enriched with ingredients like vitamins, calcium, and Omega-3 fatty acids. “This aligns with the growing consumer interest in products that not only serve as dairy alternatives but also provide added health benefits,” the research said. 

Are functional drinks healthy?

Functional beverages contain biologically active, health-promoting ingredients, going beyond the average ‘healthier’ drink options available today. These have, for the last decade, been removing ingredients like sugar and artificial sweeteners to improve their health credentials, says Eoin. “Whilst some of this progress is good for the consumer, a functional drink is much more beneficial as it contains something that is actually beneficial, not just reducing the amount of unhealthy ingredients.”

The formats of functional drinks that are sold as ‘shots’ to take once a day also align drinks more with health products while keeping them easy to consume. “Since the pandemic, we have seen a huge increase in the health-conscious consumer, and when returning to work and their normal busy lives, people are also demanding convenient health solutions that are easy to implement and do not alter their day-to-day schedules. Functional drinks provide just that,” says The Turmeric Co’s Thomas.

The specific health benefits depend on the functional ingredients used – and there are many in addition to those already mentioned here. “For example, liquorice root, lemon balm and valerian are known to help you sleep,” Laura says.

“You might find turkey tail, turmeric, acerola or echinacea in an immunity drink; ginseng, cordyceps or green tea in an energising blend; and tremella, collagen or camu camu in a skin-focused drink,” Clarissa adds.

“When you pick up a functional drink you should look at the ingredients, check there are no contradictions with your medication and avoid them if you are pregnant,” Laura advises.

What is the future of functional drinks?

According to Karine of Dietitian Fit, there is “definitely high market demand for functional drinks,” with infused CBD drinks, ginger shots and immunity shots high on her radar – and she expects this to continue, especially with fermented and fortified drinks and drinks to boost memory and enhance cognitive focus, such as nootropics.

Hip Pop’s Emma agrees. “Based on the research and trends we’re seeing in our own customer base, there’s definitely an increasing desire for functional drinks to support cognitive and mental health – as epitomised by drinks containing CBD and other adaptogens, and also drinks focused on gut health with a number of launches into this space in 2024 already.”

In the alcohol-free sector, Laura, says the additional health boost that functional drinks offer will only continue to fuel demand because it “helps counter the loss aversion felt from having a social drink that does not contain alcohol,” she says. “It’s great to come out of the pub healthier.”

Urvashi expects to see a continued trend in fewer people choosing coffee for their caffeine hit, and Clarissa agrees, saying that matcha and cacao offer great replacements. Clarissa even sees a future where functional drinks are tailor-made to individuals. “We may even begin seeing personalised options when buying functional drinks, with drinks being made with a person’s individual supplementation needs, all in one, healthy and functional, every-day drink,” she says.

“There is going to be more of a movement towards ‘ageing better’,” Urvashi adds, plus “continued emphasis and new discoveries surrounding minimising autoimmune conditions, improving mental clarity and sharpness and fresher, younger skin by reduced inflammation and improved sleep. 

“The space has so much scope.”

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