DO CONSUMERS BELIEVE ADD-ON HYPES?

In the past, people seeking to avoid the aging process would dream of someday encountering that mythical and seductive fountain. More recently, the quest for eternal youth, or at best sustained vigor, has led some consumers into supermarket beverage aisles.As more and more beverage vendors jump on the "better-for-you" bandwagon, the New Age beverage category continues to blossom. Supermarket retailers

In the past, people seeking to avoid the aging process would dream of someday encountering that mythical and seductive fountain. More recently, the quest for eternal youth, or at best sustained vigor, has led some consumers into supermarket beverage aisles.

As more and more beverage vendors jump on the "better-for-you" bandwagon, the New Age beverage category continues to blossom. Supermarket retailers are taking the segment more seriously as it matures, evidenced by updated aisle signage directing consumers to "New Age beverages" seen recently by an SN reporter at a Ralphs in southern California.

And that is not the only indication that the category will continue to occupy shelf space for some time to come. A new report released by the California-based Front Line Strategic Management Consulting predicts that the functional ready-to-drink beverage category -- also known as nutraceutical beverages -- will account for $5.7 billion in functional food sales by the year 2005. You can read more about this report on Page 36 in this issue.

John Bello, president of the Norwalk, Conn.-based South Beach Beverage Co. (SoBe), told SN he believes the category's current and future success in the grocery channel can be attributed not only to its quality and value-added components, but also to its "fun" quotient.

Yet, with the additional spotlight being directed at the nutraceutical beverage category, many vendors have come under scrutiny for not living up to the promises articulated on their product labels.

In recent months, the Food and Drug Administration has chastised certain vendors, alleging that their product labels are misleading and, for some, blatantly inaccurate. As a means of admonishment, the FDA recently issued letters of warning to certain companies that claim their beverages are the liquid equivalent of a dietary supplement when, in fact, the 1994 Dietary Supplement and Health Education Act does not provide a regulation for conventional foods to even be deemed as such.

Even more recently, the Florida Department of Citrus expressed concern that certain orange drinks are labeled in a manner that could make consumers believe they are purchasing juice, when the drinks really contain only minimal amounts of pure orange juice.

In light of the disputes among those involved in the beverage realm, what validity can consumers place on the flashy labels that adorn so many of the popular New Age beverages?

To find out exactly what some consumers think about the nutraceutical beverage products that keep increasing their presence on their local supermarket's shelves, SN polled various shoppers in the Michigan area on their experiences with these drinks, the results of which are on Pages 38 and 42. Interestingly, despite the aggressive marketing campaigns of many of these vendors, which play up the medicinal attributes of these drinks, many consumers report that they base their beverage selections on taste alone, not the promised health benefits.

Bello said taste is a monumental factor in the sales of SoBe products, as is eye-catching, appropriate labels.

"Our consumers want refreshment and great taste. Our all-natural tea and juice bases are healthy by nature, and the additional ingredients are just a bonus.

"We make no health claims on our labels, and we clearly and appropriately label all our products so our consumer can see what he or she is buying. Either people want vitamin C or they don't."