Beverage manufacturers are churning out low- and no-calorie versions of their functional drinks
Americans are cutting calories, not just by switching what's on the end of their fork, but also by throwing back better-for-you versions of their favorite beverages.
Armed with stevia sweeteners and other flavor enhancers, manufacturers are bringing line extensions to the party — and to the delight of consumers, there is little sacrifice to taste.
Marketers are so confident that low-calorie versions pack the same flavor as their full-calorie counterparts they've worked the magic numbers into their branding campaigns.
Take, for instance, Glacéau Vitaminwater Zero, which touts its no-calorie status right on the label. With year-one revenues of $110.3 million across food, drug and mass channels, it was the fourth best-selling new food or beverage of 2010, according to SymphonyIRI Group, Chicago.
Also in the top 10 were Trop50, which boasts half the calories and sugar, and 55-calorie Budweiser Select 55 (that's fewer calories than in skim milk).
Susan Viamari, editor of the SymphonyIRI's Times & Trends report, isn't surprised that these beverages resonate with Americans since in addition to tying into home-based eating rituals, they mix health and wellness with indulgence.
“Consumers are working so hard to eat healthier and the three are successful since they deliver the same experiential taste with [fewer] calories,” she said.
Though a range of categories are benefiting from the trend, low-calorie functional beverages are especially well received by a health-oriented consumer base.
Functional beverage consumers are concerned about sugar, in particular, with one-third of those who watch their diet to maintain or lose weight, looking for sugar-free beverages, and one in four, for low-sugar products, according to Chicago-based Mintel.
“All diet versions are going to find bigger favor among functional beverage consumers since they tend to be more health-minded,” said Garima Goel Lal, senior analyst at Mintel.
In fact, low- and no-calorie enhanced waters came in response to consumer pushback after many realized they'd been unwittingly consuming as many calories as are in carbonated soft drinks. Early adopters assumed that drinks including “water” in their name had zero calories.
Now marketers can't pump better-for-you versions out fast enough. In the past six months alone, 40 new “reduced/low/no calorie” enhanced waters have hit the market, according to Mintel's Global New Products Database. Energy drinks (17), sports drinks (15) and ready-to-drink teas (14) making similar claims have also been popular.
“When the category took off, consumers picked up enhanced waters thinking they were getting all the vitamins without the calories,” said Goel Lal.
Thanks to more recent introductions, that perception is finally true.
Since their launch, better-for-you versions from SoBe Lifewater and Vitaminwater have cannibalized sales of the originals, but their share of category is still marginal, according to John Eichler, grocery manager for Jungle Jim's International Market, Fairfield, Ohio.
“The low-calorie versions sell well. Not at the level of the traditional drinks, but well,” he said.
Other functional beverages such as low-calorie Powerade and Gatorade's G2 aren't eroding sales of the conventional drinks but increasing penetration with non-athletes who buy sports drinks because they like the taste.
One new consumer of Gatorade G2 — which has less than half the calories of original Gatorade with 20 per 8-ounce serving — is Amy McLeod, health nutritionist for Brookshire Brothers, Lufkin, Texas.
“I buy this for my kids, whereas normally I would not since the calories [in Gatorade] are so high,” she said. G2 possesses a 15.5% share of the sports drink category while share leader Gatorade Perform holds just over half (53.5%).
McLeod has adopted as one of her key missions making consumers aware of the number of liquid calories they are consuming. “Nine in 10 of the patients I see are getting the great majority of their calories from beverages,” she said.
Part of the issue is that Americans don't have a good grasp on appropriate serving size. “Even though it's in a single bottle, it's often a multi-serve product,” said Goel Lal.
Leah McGrath, a registered dietitian for Ingles Markets, likewise encounters shoppers who mindlessly consume calories in the name of hydration. “We tend to focus on what's on our plates and not what's in the glass,” she told SN.
But research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that cutting liquid calories rather than those coming from foods led to greater weight loss. Subjects who cut 100 calories a day from sugar-sweetened beverages lost a half-pound, while those who cut 100 calories from food lost just one-tenth of a pound.
While soda used to be the biggest no-no for those minding their caloric intake, new drinks are taking its place. That's why McGrath strongly encourages label reading as a way to weed out empty calorie sources.
“People focus a lot of attention on soda being the culprit but now there are these new categories like teas, vitamin waters and cold coffee beverages,” she said. “You can have three times as many calories [as soda] certainly in a large coffee drink and even in some of the tea beverages.”
Ingles Markets shoppers have started to notice options that are naturally low in calories.
Among the drinks appealing to athletes is coconut water since it's rich in electrolytes and low in carbs and calories.
Aloe water, also known as aloe vera juice, is also “quite popular,” according to McGrath. The drink is thought to help with a range of ailments including diabetes, constipation and even the prevention of lung cancer.
While natural sweeteners such as stevia are being used to lower calories in healthy juices, teas and enhanced waters, other beverage makers have found that coconut water does the trick.
“Coconut water's relatively neutral flavor makes it an ideal base for adding not only flavors but ingredients like vitamins and minerals,” said Goel Lal.
Naked Juice used coconut water to reduce the calories in its Tropical and Peach Guava smoothies by 35%. “By blending our smoothies with coconut water (a juice), we've reduced sugars and calories without losing any nutritional value or that beloved Naked Juice taste,” said the company in promotional materials.
Other manufacturers, like PepsiCo, have blended purified water in drinks like Trop50 to cut calories, said Goel Lal, adding “somehow they've managed to keep the flavor intact.”
Taste is key for shoppers who've come to expect good flavor without compromising their weight loss efforts, according to McLeod.
“If it's got zero calories and it's got some flavor, they'll grab it,” she said.
McLeod is encouraged by all of the new products hitting shelves.
“Every time I host a supermarket tour I'm amazed at the number and creativity of new products. I applaud it because it gives people choice,” she said.