Sips with zip

Health and energy drinks are flooding the beverage market.

July 27, 2005|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN STAFF

It used to be eight glasses of water a day was enough. Now drinking for good health has gotten a lot more complicated.

In the past few years, cold beverages have been the hottest sales category of any specialty foods, according to Specialty Food magazine. Between 2002 and 2004, sales of these New Age drinks jumped almost 40 percent. Last year alone, a staggering 1,020 new alternatives to traditional sodas were introduced.

That's a lot of enhanced water beverages, energy drinks, flavored teas and specialty sodas.

Coke and Pepsi, of course, still dominate. According to the Washington-based trade group American Beverage Association, people in this country drink on average more than 50 gallons of soda pop a year. About 70 percent of that is Coke or Pepsi.

But the boutique bottlers have found their niche. They offer - or at the very least say they offer - a more healthful alternative to the soft-drink giants, some with a bit of nostalgia thrown in.

"I don't drink anything with high-fructose corn syrup or citric acid in it [common ingredients in traditional cola]," says Jamie Isenberg, a 21-year-old student at the Maryland Institute College of Art. "They dehydrate you."

While her science may be open to question, the sentiment isn't. American consumers have become ingredient-conscious. They look on the back of the can or bottle to see what's inside. If there are too many things they can't pronounce or have never heard of (like phosphoric acid or potassium benzoate, two ingredients in Diet Pepsi) they may put it right back on the shelf.

Pamela Macht doesn't drink soda herself, but she's in Whole Foods stocking up on Izze for her husband and 10-year-old son. She could do ads for the popular "alternative natural beverage."

"It's the perfect combination of sparkling water and real fruit juice," she says enthusiastically, "but it's not too sweet. I stop in here every few days and pick some more up. My husband said maybe I should call someone and have it delivered."

Izze was introduced in 2003. It's a combination of fruit juice and carbonated water in flavors like clementine, blueberry, blackberry, grapefruit, lemon and pear. While it doesn't have added sugar or artificial ingredients, it is worth noting that the Sparkling Clementine contains white grape, orange, apple and tangerine juice concentrates - about 150 calories worth in an 8-ounce bottle.

The point isn't that there's anything wrong with Izze. There isn't. It's light and refreshing, and probably better for you than traditional soda if you don't mind the calories. The bottle is certainly prettier than a Coke can. You feel as if you've gotten something special for your beverage dollar. But sometimes New Age drinks promise more than they may be able to deliver.

Artisan bottlers have jumped into the beverage wars with both feet, not just subtracting "bad" things like calories, carbs and caffeine, but adding vitamins, herbal supplements, natural flavors and pure fruit juices.

Their products have hip names like the Switch, Fizzy Lizzy, Oop! Juice (a carbonated drink, not fruit juice) and GuS (which stands for Grown-Up Soda). The packaging usually has a highly designed, decidedly uncola look, and the labels often feature cleverer-than-thou quips.

"The inside is natural, the outside is plastic," Glaceau Vitamin Water's label says.

The good-for-you trend has resulted in such products as Fuze's Diet Orange Ginger Green Tea, which is infused (yes, pun intended) with antioxidants that the company says are equal to three servings of vegetables, plus six vitamins and none of that "bad" high-fructose corn syrup.

"People, instead of buying their Diet Coke, are looking for products that are more distinctive," says Ron Tanner, editor of Specialty Food magazine. He sees two main factors driving the New Age drinks craze. "People are looking for healthier things to drink, and nostalgia. People want a soda they remember from childhood."

In the last century, a lot of the small soda bottlers got knocked out of the marketplace by the giants. Now they're back. Customers are responding well, beverage experts say, to classic brands like Original Stewart's, which comes in flavors such as old-fashioned grape, cream soda and root beer. They are bottled in glass with a metal cap that can only be removed with a church key. Bottled lemonade also falls in this category.

Through the haze of nostalgia, customers perceive these drinks as somehow purer, with more natural flavors and fewer strange ingredients and preservatives. Many are made with cane sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup, for instance. Research is inconclusive about the benefits of sugar over corn syrup, but that doesn't prevent manufacturers from praising its virtues.

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