Kombucha was just the beginning.
The meteoric rise of the bubbly fermented tea inspired a wave of new beverages with probiotics, electrolytes and other ingredients that promise to do more than just taste good.
Drinks with "function" are now in fashion.
"I don't see this letting up any time soon," said Sally Lyons Wyatt, a food and beverage expert at IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm. "Almost every beverage is getting into adding some functional benefits."
For Minneapolis-based Panache, that means infusing apple juice with ingredients like ginger and turmeric for their anti-inflammatory properties and other benefits. The company has enjoyed a steady rise from farmers markets to local grocery stores in recent years as more consumers seek a health and wellness boost from everyday food and drink.
"Putting functionality on the forefront is conscious eating, for lack of a better term," said Panache CEO and co-founder Ameeta Jaiswal-Dale. "And I think most people now want to eat consciously."
The functional beverage market is dominated by energy drinks and sports drinks, usually loaded with caffeine and sugar just like sodas. But natural products are making big gains as teas, seltzers and juices offer targeted benefits like stress relief, gut health and immunity.
Drinks with prebiotics or probiotics saw sales jump 52% in the past year, according to IRI data, and beverages that prominently feature protein as a main benefit rose 27%. Kombucha sales passed half a billion dollars.
Beverage cases at retailers have expanded or reorganized to keep up with demand, which accelerated during the pandemic.
"This growth has continued to be strong because of the increasing pressures of the world we live in," Lyons Wyatt said. "You need your beverages and food to do more for you to live well."
Like using chicken noodle soup to fight colds or ginger ale for a stomachache, Jaiswal-Dale says she and others are putting a name to a practice that predates modern marketing.
"Every food group has a function," said Jaiswal-Dale, also a University of St. Thomas business professor. "Food is something that has to be suitable for your body, so we have to customize our intake."
When Melina Lamer started making Superior Switchel — an apple cider vinegar-based drink said to replenish electrolytes and boost immunity — she was selling it in glass jars at farmers' markets.
Now owned by Sociable Cider Werks and rebranded as Superior Craft Elixirs, the tart refreshment can be found in cans at a variety of retailers and taprooms.
"It's not just for people looking for an alternative to alcohol, it's great on a hot summer day if I'm dehydrated," said Jim Watkins, co-founder of Sociable Cider Werks. "I think it's got legs."
It's also a resurgence of a natural remedy first used centuries ago. Indeed, beverage revival is a trend of its own.
"We have a tonic water and ginger beer coming out later this year. Both of those were originally concocted to be medicinal," Watkins said.
But while many functional beverages are quick to point out their wellness benefits, Superior Craft Elixirs keeps them off the can.
"It has to stand on its own, be great-tasting and make people think, 'This is a guilt-free beverage,'" Watkins said. "I think there's so much of the 'Hey this is better for you' approach to beverage sales that feels a lot like snake oil."
Shelves are increasingly cluttered with health claims, and Lyons Wyatt, the consultant at IRI, said brands and retailers need to help consumers navigate.
"Education is so important. We're seeing many new benefits bubbling up, and less than 20 percent of consumers might know what they are," she said. "You've got a lot of manufacturers entering, and the degree of impact of their ingredients varies."
The most sought-out function in any beverage, other than hydration, is caffeine.
Americans spend billions on cold brew and bottled teas every year — and that's just at grocery and convenience stores. The U.S. energy drink category is estimated at about $14 billion and growing, according to Research and Markets.
Big Watt Cold Beverage Co. has introduced a line of caffeinated sparkling waters meant to provide an all-natural alternative to Hiball and even Monster — or maybe a break from coffee for an afternoon jolt.
The "enhanced waters" also contain electrolytes and vitamins that provide an extra functional appeal.
"There has definitely been a shift in the way people consume and think about what they put in their bodies," said Big Watt chief executive Alex Gese. "There are new products hitting the shelves constantly, so for us to have the chance to succeed, we have to be nimble and willing to create something new."
As more consumers gravitate toward "clean labels" — short, natural ingredient lists — Big Watt refreshed its packaging to draw attention to its own.
"The single most important brand feature is actually the can. It has to speak to people on the shelf," said Rick Dow, head of sales at Big Watt.
Once it's in a shopper's hands, there's a greater inclination to "turn the can around" and check the label, comparing with the dozens of other functional options packing retail coolers.
"'Natural flavoring' is often a signal that it's not. Our raspberries are raspberries," Dow said. "These products are very appealing to high-value consumers who are more and more seeking 'good-for-me.'"
Know your labels
Adaptogens — Some mushrooms and plants contain compounds that can help the body respond to stress. Ginseng, ashwagandha, reishi and lion's mane are common sources of adaptogens.
Antioxidants — A number of vitamins and minerals have antioxidant properties, which help prevent or slow damage to cells.
CBD — Cannabidiol is a hemp-derived compound largely marketed for its calming effects and lacks THC, which is the high-producing chemical in marijuana. Though Minnesota doesn't allow CBD in food and drink, a wide variety of infused products are commonly found at retailers and online.
Collagen — A protein our bodies make in abundance — though less so as we age — collagen from animals is marketed for skin and bone health.
Clean caffeine — This label is used to denote natural sources of the world's most popular stimulant, such as coffee or tea, as opposed to the synthetic caffeine commonly found in energy drinks.
Electrolytes — Essential minerals like sodium and potassium that the body needs to function. A balanced diet typically contains enough, but heavy exertion and heavy drinking can deplete electrolytes.
MCT oil — Typically distilled from coconut oil, medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) are a type of fat that is easier to digest and may trigger feelings of satiety. Commonly used on the keto diet and in "bulletproof" coffee.
Prebiotic — Certain plant fibers are called prebiotic because they are an especially good source of food for the healthy bacteria in our guts that make digestion possible.
Probiotic — Naturally occurring in yogurt, kombucha, kimchi and other fermented foods, probiotics are the beneficial bacteria and yeasts often referred to as "gut flora" that aid digestion.