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The benefits of coconut water have quickly catapulted the electrolyte-rich elixir from an exotic liquid sipped from the shell by locals and tourists to the epicenter of an entirely new beverage category: plant waters. And while coconut water continues to grow and evolve in the natural beverage space, which intersects with the similarly expanding functional foods category, it now has lots of company.
In fact, the natural beverage category, which includes a number of "functional foods," is one of the fastest-growing sectors in the industry. The vanguard plant water beverage, coconut water, sold $248 million in 2013 according to Nielsen. (The actual figure is likely much higher, since Nielsen only captures an estimated 65 percent of all retail sales).
Tom Zummo, CEO of True Me Brands, which makes True Nopal cactus water, chalks it up to a "you are what you eat and drink" mentality. “Consumers are no longer just looking to just put empty calories into their bodies to fill them up, and this philosophy is leading consumption habits back to nature.”
Coconut Water Leads The Pack
The growth of plant waters is dominated by coconut water, but a sizable, and quickly diversifying, bevy of other entrants are knocking on the door. Right now, companies making birch, cactus, aloe, barley and even watermelon water are all after a piece of the healthy and low-calorie niche coconut water has carved out between sports drinks and soda. But imaginative new varieties are bubbling up the pipeline as quickly as entrepreneurs and established brands can formulate them.
This is in contrast to the marketplace experience of coconut water, which stood alone as a plant water when it was introduced in 1997, according to an internal report Tetra Pak commissioned this past February from market-watcher Mintel. There is still no recognized “plant waters” category in marketing reports, but industry watchers expect that to change in the near future.
Plant Water Market Grows Exponentially
This category has seen tremendous growth since its inception – particularly in the past three years. In 2013 alone, according to the report, 264 variants of plant water were introduced (including different flavors from the same brand), and there are currently 848 variants of plant waters sold worldwide, with 319 of those in North America.
“The plant water market keeps growing at the expense of soft drinks, and plant water [makers] are aiming to position themselves within this space by leveraging the equity of the word ‘water,’ while adding a natural element for functionality,” explains Riccardo Vellani, beverage category manager for Tetra Pak US and Canada.
What Sets Plant Waters Apart
In terms of functionality and flavor, each type of plant water has a unique nutritional and taste profile, and its makers tout varied benefits for body or beauty. For instance, coconut water benefits include its rehydration; aloe water is seen as a beauty boon for skin; and birch water is viewed by traditional users as an overall health tonic.
Also, some are made from sap (birch), some from juice (cactus), and others from pressed fruit (watermelon), which all have different properties and production requirements. For instance, coconut water begins breaking down quickly when exposed to sunlight. So as beverage makers look to enter or expand their presences in the plant water market and preserve the products’ functional properties, packaging is an important consideration for them from product preservation and consumer-appeal perspectives.
Packaging is Key to Freshness
Besides the production issues, the vast majority of coconut water now on the market is currently in aseptic cartons for a variety of reasons. Aseptic UHT processing is gentler on the vitamins and minerals that plant water brands are selling, and without refrigeration many plant waters begin to quickly deteriorate post-harvest.
“Cartons have become synonymous with coconut water,” notes Jeff Rubenstein, senior VP of marketing, adding that consumers who seek out healthy beverages are the same ones who care about sustainability and recyclability.
As beverage manufacturers begin to explore or expand their presence in the functional plant waters market, they should consider the role of packaging in the preservation and promotion of these ephemeral essences of nature. Tetra Pak’s Product Development Center in Denton, Texas, makes it possible to process small batch test runs for these unique new products before scaling them up and shipping them out to consumers, who remain increasingly thirsty for waters that offer more flavor and functionality than what is currently on tap.
Further industry insights from Suley Muratoglu can be found at www.doingwhatsgood.us.