Health and wellness insight

by Ray Rowlands
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Despite aggressive cam-paigns by industry executives and public health officials to curb the rise in childhood obesity the problem of weight control remains a significant issue throughout North America. Research has shown overweight children generally develop into obese adults, with all the attached health concerns such as diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure.

The issue of obesity is a recurring problem that the beverage industry is attempting to address. In 2006, the beverage industry introduced voluntary guidelines whereby full-calorie soft drinks were removed from school cafeterias and vending machines and replaced with lower-calorie drinks, including low-fat milk, diet soft drinks, juices, flavored waters and teas. A more aggressive approach to controlled consumption is taxation and it was reported in early 2010 that several U.S. states and cities were considering taxing regular soft drinks as a way to reduce calorie consumption.

As the issue of obesity has gained more attention over time there has been a reduction in the share of the soft drinks market held by regular (as opposed to low-calorie) carbonated soft drinks, though the reduction has been slow considering the apparent public concern over weight management. Meanwhile, soft drinks manufacturers continue to explore new product formulations, looking at options such as switching from high-fructose corn syrup to pure cane sugar or natural sweeteners.

Consumer demand is turning toward other beverages as well. Iced, ready-to-drink tea is one category currently growing, according to Canadean Ltd., Basingstoke, England, a beverage industry consultancy. It was one of the few segments within the soft drinks market segment in 2009 to successfully leverage specific wellness benefits not available in other categories. Green tea, in particular, gained traction due to its perceived health benefits. The popularity of green tea is now branching out as an ingredient in other drinks, such as green tea ginger ale, for example.

Consumers on diets tend to avoid fluid milk and other dairy beverages because of the perception they are fattening. Yet the products not only support healthy bone development, the calcium in milk may boost weight loss by increasing fat breakdown in fat cells.

The health benefits and natural attributes of milk, as well as the introduction of low-calorie, fat-free offerings, have been insufficient to outweigh the high calorie perception of milk leading to a gradual slide in consumption. Per capita white milk consumption in the United States has declined 1.32 gallons in the past 5 years.

Products specifically developed to aid or encourage weight management still form a small niche in the overall beverage marketplace. But weight management is not the only health concern the beverage industry is attempting to address. While a number of beverages offer naturally occurring benefits, other drinks are being fortified with a variety of ingredients in order to satisfy a range of health issues. Besides vitamins and minerals the ingredients include acai, fiber, guarana, ginseng and omega-3 fatty acid, to name a few.

Yet, according to Canadean research, the volume share held by such fortified products, at least within the soft drinks arena, has not altered significantly in recent years. This suggests a continual evolution of product enhancement rather than an actual market expansion.

The recession has affected all areas of the economy leading consumers to show caution in their purchasing habits. As a result, the overall commercial beverages market contracted by 3% in 2008 and a further 2% in 2009 with the family purse concentrated on essentials. While weight management remains an underlying concern it may take more time as the economy recovers for the health and wellness to re-emerge as a top priority for consumers.

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