Ready-to-drink, health and wellness benefit tea ingredients

In his 19th century play “Sweet Lavender,” Sir Arthur Wing Pinero made famous the line, “While there is tea, there is hope.” In today’s beverage market, that same sentiment is resonating as beverage-makers develop products that fulfill consumers’ need states for convenience, health and functionality.

“Across the board, tea has been increasing due to higher demand for ready-to-drink and powder tea beverages,” says Chris Persad, associate food technologist and trained/certified tea expert for Virginia Dare, Brooklyn, N.Y. “Over the last decade as consumers have continued to move away from carbonated soft drinks, they often migrate to a healthier alternative like tea. A lot of this growth early on was a rising tide that helped all brands.

“Now consumers are looking to experience tea in different ways,” he continues. “A lot of new growth in the tea realm is attributed to consumers wanting a more premium tea. Things like single origin RTD beverages and unsweetened artisanal/herbal teas are in high demand as opposed to the traditional sugar sweetened, fruit-flavored iced teas where the tea impact was slighter/less relevant. Now consumers want to be able to taste the different tea flavors and distinguish the differences between the premium beverages.”

Helen Griffith, vice president of marketing for S&D Coffee & Tea, Concord, N.C., echoes similar thoughts. “With the growing demand for functional and better-for-you beverages, we are seeing a larger increase in the tea extracts market,” she says. “The RTD beverage industry is booming and with more and more consumers seeking healthier alternatives to traditional soft drinks, the popularity of tea is growing. From cold brew to kombucha, tea is trending both for its health benefits and flavor-forward attributes.”

Angela Lantman, manager of product development for Wauconda, Ill.-based Synergy Flavors, explains that consumers shifting drink behaviors have contributed to tea’s sales growth as well as the ingredients used to develop these packaged products.

“From Synergy Flavors’ perspective, we believe this is a growing market,” she says. “Ready-to-drink (RTD) tea sales are increasing at a good pace and the extracts, flavors, and powders going into them are growing, too.

“Overall, the tea market continues to grow,” Lantman continues. “As carbonated soft drinks (CSDs) continue to decline in sales, the market share of tea continues to increase. Consumers still want beverages that contain caffeine and flavor varieties, and the ready-to-drink tea market is helping to fill in the gap left by the declining CSD market. It can be difficult to brew tea on a large scale, so many beverage companies are choosing to use tea extracts/flavors/powders to create these beverages instead of trying to brew and bottle on a large scale.”

As tea consumption proliferates, consumers have become more selective about which types they use in product formulations, experts note.

“As consumers become increasingly connected to and knowledgeable about the products they are consuming, they are paying more attention to ingredient labels and demanding healthier and better-quality products,” says Heidi McCormack, marketing manager for Finlays, Lincoln, R.I. “In tea, this means consumers are being drawn to new products that claim better, more authentic tea brewing techniques and a truer tea experience where the tea itself is the hero. Subsequently, we are seeing a slow decline in products with powders, as well as products that are laden with lots of sweeteners and other additives and flavorings.”

A treasure trove of benefits

Ingredient suppliers note that the proliferation of tea is linked to the numerous in-demand product attributes the ingredient offers.

“Natural and organic ingredients, as well as single origin tea, is a top priority for consumers and they continue to choose products with cleaner labels,” says Sarah Rubio, extract sales manager at Martin Bauer Inc., Secaucus, N.J. “As a result, the premium/ultra-premium and organic RTD markets are experiencing strong growth.”

Because of this, Martin Bauer continues to invest and develop solutions that fulfill beverage manufacturers’ requests.

“To meet the demands of the market, Martin Bauer Inc. created Strong Infusions, a product line of real brewed teas and herbals developed specifically for the premium/ultra-premium RTD teas segments,” Rubio explains. “Strong Infusions are produced using a unique, gentle brewing process with minimal heat exposure. This allows the full flavor of the tea ingredient to be transferred into our liquid concentrate, resulting in authentic taste experience. Martin Bauer is focused [on] growing the Strong Infusions range for beverage manufacturers and is building an organic-certified U.S. based facility in 2019.”

The attributes of natural or organic can play a bigger role in RTD beverages than traditional tea products, experts note.

“Consumers are becoming increasingly more mindful of the ingredients in their food and beverage products, and there is an increased demand for cleaner ingredients, less added sugars and ingredients with a functional purpose,” says Meghan Sutton, senior marketing specialist at Philadelphia-based Tastepoint by IFF. “These consumer demands are having more of an impact on RTD tea beverages than hot tea, as RTD can sometimes be perceived as unhealthy due to the sugars added to many products. We’re seeing more versions of lower sugar or unsweetened RTD tea beverages, and both hot and RTD tea products with cleaner labels.”

Finlays’ McCormack notes that the dearth of regulated definitions for natural does pose challenges; however, tea traditionally is associated with natural so it is more the processing methods that impact the use of natural terminology.

“Natural is a difficult term to define and deliver, but it’s the top product term that consumers are currently connecting with,” she explains. “Natural products can be defined in a variety of ways, but in the tea ingredient space it’s being associated with a better process that aligns with brewing tea just as a consumer would do at home.

“Finlays is focused on delivering just that through our new technology,” McCormack continues. “Our process is slow, low and gentle, brewing tea leaves in a way that is commercially viable, yet taking more care to preserve the delicacy of the tea leaf to get the best out of tea and deliver a product that tastes just like a cup of freshly brewed tea at home.”

In addition to processing methods, S&D’s Griffith details the role environmental impact might play when using tea ingredients in new product development.

“Sustainability and ethical sourcing are also impacting the industry as consumers seek teas that have been grown in a responsible way with minimal impact to the environment,” she says. “This will become a greater focus, as consumers become more conscious of the story behind the food and beverages they consume: where did it come from, who grew it, who blended it, how was it transported, etc.?”

Yet, remaining at the forefront of tea’s selling points are its functionality and health benefits.

“Tea is full of polyphenolic compounds that are known to be antioxidants,” Virginia Dare’s Persad says. “Antioxidants have been shown to protect against different cancers by fighting free radicals. There are many other halo health benefits that have been researched. Tea also contains the stimulant caffeine at a lower level than coffee.”

Synergy’s Lantman further elaborates on the polyphenol and antioxidant benefits available from tea. “Tea in general is known for its antioxidant and polyphenol properties that help to reduce cancer causing free radicals, but what some may not be aware of is that these polyphenols also may help to protect against Alzheimer’s disease, reduce inflammation, protect your cardiovascular system and more,” she says. “It’s also interesting that black tea specifically may protect a person’s lungs from damage caused by cigarette smoke and may also reduce the risk of stroke. There really are no negatives when it comes to drinking tea, but of course, consumers should follow the motto of everything in moderation.”

Although the antioxidants contained in tea are well-known, Blake Wester, manager of innovation and technology for Flavorchem, Downers Grove, Ill., notes that the ingredient offers more in the name of health and functionality.

“Many people focus on the antioxidants and completely miss a crucial amino acid, L-theanine,” he says. “L-theanine is well researched to assist in focus and relaxation.”

What’s your type?

Within the tea market, numerous types of tea are available for product formulation; however, the industry remains dominated by one main type.

“Black tea continues to dominate in share of market; however, the higher growth is being seen in other varieties of teas,” Finlays’ McCormack says. “Green shows high growth due to a consumer association with it offering more health benefits.”

Flavorchem’s Wester notes that black and green teas dominance is unlikely to change for many reasons. “Green and black teas will likely always dominate the market,” he says. “This is not only due to their awareness, but also due to supply. Green and black tea comprises a significant majority of the overall market.”

Although black tea dominates the tea market share, experts note that there can be different subsets within black tea.

“In general there are many different kinds of black teas that bring different taste characteristics to beverages,” Virginia Dare’s Persad explains. “This gives rise to a broad range of black tea products where each product can potentially have its own distinguishable taste.”

When it comes to green tea, Tastepoint’s Sutton notes that the tea segment has minimized the gap between green and black tea.

“In recent years, green tea has been catching up, and we’re even starting to see consumers become fonder of less mainstream varieties such as oolong and rooibos,” she says. “There’s also been a major uptick in herbal teas as botanical ingredients continue to grow as a market trend.”

Other ingredient suppliers also are noticing how herbals and other tea types have gained favor with consumers and ultimately beverage manufacturers.

“While green and black teas will always be popular tea choices, the current focus on health and wellness has led to a surge in popularity around functional teas and botanicals such as yerba mate, oolong, rooibos, cascara and more,” S&D’s Griffith says. “Botanicals are being linked to energy and immune boosts, healthy skin, and improvements in memory and focus.

“For example, teas with chamomile and echinacea are known to provide stress relief while lavender tea is thought to encourage sleep,” she continues. “Beverage-makers have a huge opportunity to tap into the current tea trend and develop unique flavorful beverages that satisfy consumers seeking real, authentic beverages they can feel good about.”

Anyeli Beard, leaf tea sales manager at Martin Bauer, also details other tea types that pair well with numerous flavor combinations. “Currently, we see a lot of interest in hibiscus, lemongrass, peppermint and spearmint,” Beard says. “Hibiscus provides a brilliant red color along with a pleasant tartness. The lemongrass is popular for its citrus notes. Spearmint and peppermint add that fresh and cool combination. All of these items work very well in most herbal tea blends. Hibiscus is especially popular in tandem with other fruits like apple, blackberry and orange peel.”

Hybrid power

With so many types of tea from which to choose, beverage-makers are seeing the potential that tea ingredients can harness outside of the traditional tea category, experts note. This capability even is opening tea up to opportunities outside of beverage market.

“Formats and flavors are pushing traditional boundaries unlike ever before,” Tastepoint’s Sutton says. “Cross-category inspiration is a go-to for innovation, resulting in mash-up products that bring unexpected textures, flavors, formats and fusions to menus and retail shelves. Tea is no exception to this trend.

“In fact, we’re seeing tea flavors across all food and beverage categories (i.e., bakery, ice cream, confectionery, snacks and savory dishes), as well as tea being blended with other beverage sub-categories,” she continues. “Blending tea with other beverage sub-categories such as sparkling water, coffee or energy drinks can help to bring in new consumers and provide more usage occasions for current consumers.”

Finlays’ McCormack also notes tea’s growing presence in other beverage categories. “As consumer preferences shift and people seek increasing value and healthfulness in the beverage space, boundaries are getting more and more blurred between different drink categories,” she says. “Tea is well-positioned to fit into a multitude of drink segments as a way of offering an alternative ingredient that is healthy and functional.

“Tea plays very well in spaces like sports and energy drinks, offering health properties like sustained and natural energy,” McCormack continues. Additionally, the water space is an area that is looking for innovation and excitement, and tea can offer clean flavor and functionality for a completely new experience that consumers crave.

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