CHICAGO — Consumer perceptions have shifted, and many are focusing on buying products they consider cleaner and healthier. In response, they are turning their attention and wallets to clean label products containing natural ingredients and no synthetic chemicals.

The pandemic has heightened consumer concerns about how beverages are formulated. Manufacturers have taken note, reformulating recipes with new and cleaner food ingredients, according to a report from LEK Consulting, Chicago.

“The fast-growing and evolving clean food landscape presents opportunity for food ingredient manufacturers, investors and retailers,” said Rob Wilson, managing director at LEK. “As interest has dramatically picked up in recent years and shows no sign of slowing down, major players must capitalize on the clean label mega-trend to stay ahead.”

More than 60% of consumers prefer products described as having “no artificial ingredients” and “no preservatives” and as being “all natural,” according to LEK research. New technologies and food science are providing innovative solutions to growing consumer interest in clean label beverages.

The baseline for innovation

Clean ingredients have become the new baseline, according to the 2020 US Grocery Shopper Trends, a report produced by the FMI – The Food Industry Association, Washington, in collaboration with The Hartman Group, Bellevue, Wash. Shoppers are reevaluating purchase criteria and product assortment needs. They have a sharper focus on health, a heightened awareness of the environmental consequences of consumption and a desire for a deeper connection to food, according to the study. They seek products void of ingredients that may go against their aspirations, including artificial and genetically modified ingredients, as well as added sugars.

The International Food Information Council Foundation’s (IFIC) 2020 Food & Health Survey, which was conducted April 8-16, or about one month into the pandemic, showed that nearly 1 in 10 consumers (9%) follow a clean-eating diet. The natural label is most influential when shopping and when purchasing food prepared outside the home. Other clean label claims that attract are non-GMO and organic.

Clean ingredients have become the new baseline, according to the 2020 US Grocery Shopper Trends report published by the FMI - The Food Industry Association.

Seventy-four percent of consumers are cleaning up their beverage selection by limiting and avoiding sugars in the diet, according to the IFIC study. Six out of 10 drink water instead of caloric beverages. It’s no wonder the popularity of flavored waters — sparkling and still — continues to boom. The beverages typically rely on premium natural flavors without any colors, calories or sweeteners.

National Beverage Corp., Fort Lauderdale, Fla., continues to bring new flavors to its LaCroix brand of sparkling waters, a brand that helped fuel the popularity of sugar-free, calorie-free flavored carbonated waters. Within the past year, Limoncello and Pastèque (French for watermelon) joined the other 27 flavors in the marketplace.

Until recently, calling water out on beverages other than the product that resembles what comes from the sink had been infrequent. Marketers have learned water has a healthy halo with a suggestive clean approach to hydration and are using the term more liberally. Today’s shoppers may find caffeinated waters, protein waters and an array of functional waters. Some remain calorie-free while others are promoted as being lower-calorie forms of the “real deal.” Some contain sweeteners; others rely on premium flavor essences or fruit juices. Some may include a high-intensity natural sweetener, such as monk fruit or stevia.

An emerging clean label sweetener in the no-added-sugar beverage space is allulose. The “rare sugar” was designated as Generally Recognized as Safe in June 2012. In April 2019, the US Food and Drug Administration determined allulose may be excluded from total and added sugars counts on labels and that the lower calorie content may be used for total calorie determination. That’s because allulose is not metabolized by the body. The FDA ruled its caloric value in humans is about 0.4 per gram as compared to 4 calories per gram of sugar.

Allulose has a sweetness curve similar to sucrose; however, it is only about 70% as sweet as sucrose. Because it tastes like sucrose, unlike other low- and no-calorie sweeteners that may have upfront intense sweetness, lingering tastes or bitterness, it typically does not require flavor masking. Flavor modulators may assist with enhancing sweetness or allulose may be used with sugar or high-intensity sweeteners to achieve the full 100% sweet taste of sucrose.

“Sugar’s increasingly negative image due to its impact on rising diabetes rates and childhood obesity has hurt sales of sugary beverages,” said Jennifer Mapes-Christ, food industry publisher, Packaged Facts, Rockville, Md. “People who want to reduce their sugar intake typically do not want sugar-free products but instead those with less sugar or those sweetened with natural, non-sugar ingredients. New product activity has surged for reduced-sugar varieties of beverages, with manufacturers using natural sweeteners.”

This includes fruit ingredients. Newton, Mass.-based Spindrift was founded in 2010 and quickly gained a cult-like following in the United States. The brand differs from LaCroix in that it is naturally flavored and sweetened with fruit. All products are free of added sweeteners or natural flavors, and they consist of water, just the right amount of bubbles and squeezed fruit. The brand’s most recent addition is pineapple, which is made with Costa Rican pineapples.

“Fruit and vegetable pieces and powders give beverages the taste and feel of fruits and vegetables, while providing sweetness and color,” Mr. Wilson said. “They come in myriad forms, fortify products with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, and contribute to a health and wellness lifestyle.”

Waterloo Sparkling Water, Austin, Texas, added a blueberry flavor to its product mix. Formulated by the company’s in-house flavor development team, the new sparkling water features an up-front balance of fruity notes and true-to-fruit finish, the company said.

Cold-pressed fruits and vegetables provide an extra layer of “clean” to beverages. As the name suggests, cold-pressed juices are being manufactured without heat. The juices are extracted using a slow pulverizer with hydraulic press, as compared to traditional centrifugal juicing processes that generate heat. This is done in order to preserve more of the nutrients and active compounds in the whole fruits and vegetables.

Sapsucker is an organic sparkling tree water developed and produced in Canada.

Natalie’s Orchard Island Juice Co., Fort Pierce, Fla., has taken its cold-pressed juice line a step further with the addition of clean label functional ingredients. The line made its debut in early 2019. This year the company added two new varieties. Nourish contains green superfood ingredients, including cucumbers, which studies have shown reduce stress, along with antioxidant-rich kale and spinach, which are intended to rejuvenate the body. Other ingredients include fresh pineapple, celery, lime cilantro and a kick of jalapeño for spice. Immunity is about enhancing the function of the immune system, often through vitamin C-rich foods. Fresh oranges and tangerines are the main ingredients. The juice also contains pineapple, aloe vera and sweet basil.

Sapsucker is an organic sparkling tree water developed and produced in Canada and is formulated to support local tree farmers and forest management. Maple trees draw moisture through their roots and trunk, acting as a natural filter. Over the course of a Canadian winter, the water collects nutrients that provide hydration and nourishment, enabling the tree’s growth and rejuvenation when it starts to warm. In the spring, trees are tapped; the harvest process does not harm the trees. The sweet water is infused with natural lemon or lime flavor, and carbonation is added for a subtle bubble. The final product is described as a healthy plant-based beverage boasting minerals, antioxidants, amino acids, vitamins and prebiotics.

On the cutting edge

Many consider cannabinoids to be a clean label plant extract with functional benefits. That’s why many of the next-generation CBD beverages entering the marketplace avoid artificial ingredients and even calories.

“Our customers kept asking us for a zero-calorie option, so we set out to craft some great-tasting sparkling CBD waters,” said Andrew Fulton, co-founder, Rocky Mountain Soda, Denver. “It can be difficult to make things with no sweeteners taste good, especially with hemp extracts, so it’s all about sourcing high-quality ingredients and letting them shine.

“We are committed to creating unique flavors using all-natural and organic ingredients. We keep it as simple as possible and let the ingredients speak for themselves.”

The new sparkling CBD water line comes in citrus and hibiscus flavors. Both contain 20 mg of broad spectrum hemp extract and natural flavors for a clean and relaxed vibe, Mr. Fulton said. They have zero carbohydrates, zero sugar, zero sodium, and are vegan, kosher, gluten-free and non-GMO.

New Agua Bucha from Mother Kombucha, St. Petersburg, Fla., is a kombucha-infused carbonated water. It is described as a crisp, refreshing sparkling water enhanced with B vitamins and organic acids found in kombucha. A proprietary process ensures Agua Bucha is shelf stable without pasteurization, and all nutrition is derived naturally from the kombucha. It comes in three organic flavors — grapefruit, key lime and Meyer lemon — with each 12-oz can containing 4 calories from the 1 gram of sugar added for sweetness.

Rocky Mountain Soda's sparkling CBD water line comes in cirtus and hibiscus flavors and has no carbohydrates, sugar or sodium.

Turkey Hill Dairy, Conestoga, Pa., offers Trace of Tea Water. The beverage is purified water with a touch of tea essence, which are aromatic flavors released during the brewing process. The ready-to-drink beverage contains no calories, no sweeteners and no artificial colors or flavors. And while made with tea essence, it does not claim to contain any caffeine. The four varieties are black tea, black tea with mint, green tea and green tea with lemon.

Clean caffeine is another differentiator in the beverage sector. Energy drinks with natural sources of caffeine, such as coffee, tea and other plants, may prove attractive as clean label alternatives to chemically caffeinated beverages.

After listening to feedback from thousands of Whole Foods customers, Angry Angel, Raleigh, NC, began sourcing all-natural ingredients to develop a healthy, high-performance, energy beverage. The new product, Angry Angel Mind, Body and Soul Fuel, comes in blackberry lemon and tropical flavors and is verified by the Non-GMO Project.

“I have personally performed over 300 sampling sessions and found that consumers generally want a ‘healthy’ energy drink option, but find labels misleading or lacking information,” said Justin Lloyd, founder. “Industry-leading energy drinks are packed with cheap, bulk ingredients like artificial sweeteners, chemical preservatives and lab-made caffeine. I spent years perfecting our new formula, in part to challenge the big-brand decision-makers who are above going into stores and listening to the consumer, and to uproot the industry and enforce ingredient quality and transparency.”

The formula balances function and natural ingredients in place of artificial ingredients. Co-enzyme Q10 and plant-based caffeine derived from yerba mate provide a clean energy boost, B-vitamin complex serves to optimize cognitive function, and vitamin C works to elevate immunity. It is sweetened with organic monk fruit.

“We achieved our goal of providing ingredient transparency through the use of icons and third-party verification,” Mr. Lloyd said, “Our new product works to meet consumer demand for a great-tasting, high-performance, natural energy beverage. With zero calories, zero sugar, and zero artificial ingredients, it’s as simple as it gets.”

Nutrition shake and meal replacement manufacturers also are embracing clean label formulations. Kate Farms, Santa Barbara, Calif., for example, is introducing a line of organic, plant-based meal replacement shakes making it easier for consumers to fuel their bodies with clean, energy-boosting nutrition.

“We have pioneered plant-based nutrition in the medical setting where clinicians prescribe our formulas to patients who are at nutritional risk, fighting chronic diseases, such as autoimmune issues, digestive problems, allergies, cancer and malnutrition,” said Brett Matthews, Kate Farms chairman and CEO. “Now, Kate Farms’ clinically proven nutrition helps everyone lead a healthier lifestyle and meet their individual needs and situations, medical or not.”

Like all Kate Farms products, the nutrition shakes are free of dairy, soy, gluten, corn and artificial ingredients, making it suitable for dairy-free, gluten-free, plant-based and vegan diets. Made from organic, non-GMO ingredients, the shakes provide a balanced, protein- and nutrient-rich meal, a third of an adult’s daily key nutrients in only 330 calories, without sacrificing nutrition or taste, and all with a clean ingredient list.