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The Ever-Changing Water Category has risen to a new level of sophistication. Consumers are bypassing the hype of isotonics and electrolytes in favor of still waters infused with a hint of fruit extracts or a pinch of herbs. The natural flavorings are used instead of sugar or artificial sweeteners, and the simplicity of these bottled quaffs is resonating with health-minded shoppers. The trend is evident

The Ever-Changing Water Category has risen to a new level of sophistication. Consumers are bypassing the hype of isotonics and electrolytes in favor of still waters infused with a hint of fruit extracts or a pinch of herbs. The natural flavorings are used instead of sugar or artificial sweeteners, and the simplicity of these bottled quaffs is resonating with health-minded shoppers.

The trend is evident at Publix, Lakeland, Fla., where water-based beverages touting herbs and functional ingredients are highly popular, said Maria Brous, spokeswoman for the chain.

“Some of the newest ingredients introduced in recent years are extra caffeine for energy or different herb extracts for proposed health benefits,” she said. “Ginseng is used for increased mental capabilities, and some drinks are fortified with vitamins.”

In the past year, total bottled water sales jumped 9.5% to claim 27.8% of total volume share of beverages, while carbonated soft drinks were down 1.1% to 50.9% of total volume share during the same period, according to data from New York-based Beverage Marketing Corp. Similarly, during that time, ready-to-drink tea's share of the market increased 26.2% and energy drinks were up by 49.1%.

Young adult shoppers are most likely to look for drinks that promise to boost energy quickly. However, mature adults want alternatives to CSDs that provide energy over time, increase hydration and have vitamins or nutrients, experts said. All of these better-for-you water-based products are simply an extension of the all-natural trend that's been taking place for the past few years, noted Ted Taft, managing director of Meridian Consulting Group, Westport, Conn.

“The new waters are healthy and natural, which is important at a time when natural foods in general are seeing huge interest and growth,” he said. “A huge percent of the population is also worried about weight loss, and these deliver on that as well.”

Adult shoppers might still be looking for sweetened, flavored waters like vitaminwater and Propel in popular flavors like pomegranate and acai berry. But they are becoming aware of simpler options made with fewer sweeteners and more subtle flavors, noted Tim Devanney, store manager with Highland Park Markets, Glastonbury, Conn.

“Certain drinks are overpowering, with too much flavor or too much carbonation, which makes it seem like it's not water anymore but more like a soda,” he said. “More people are asking for healthier drinks without the sweeteners, and they only want a hint of flavor.”

Kara Golden got the hint. After years of searching for lightly flavored bottled water without a lot of added ingredients, Golden founded her own company that infuses “nature's natural refreshment” with faint accents of orange, strawberry, kiwi, pineapple, mint, pear and other pure essences.

Aptly named “Hint,” the line of better-for-you drinks contains water with just a smidgen of extract. There's no sugar or artificial sweeteners, which Golden believes is an answer to the consumer's cry to keep it simple.

“There was so much confusion in the marketplace over glacial water vs. well water, or water from the islands vs. water from the States, and companies were putting all kinds of things in their products and still calling it water. People saw this as deceptive, and it certainly wasn't helping the obesity problem in this country, either,” said Golden. “At the end of the day, people just want all of the bad stuff taken out of the water so it's healthy, and they want a little hint of flavor so it tastes decent.”

Hint launched a little more than two years ago and already has a nationwide presence in Wild Oats and Whole Foods stores, as well as H.E. Butt, Ralphs and several other major chains. This new niche of unsweetened, lightly flavored products is trickling into retailers' stores little by little, said Gary Hemphill, vice president of the New York-based research consulting firm Beverage Marketing Group.

“The new waters with just a touch of flavor and no sweeteners make up a new segment that should be watched,” said Hemphill.

Retailers' aisles have been filled with fruity-flavored drinks for years, from lemon/lime CSDs to mango- and acai berry-infused water. One of the newer entries into the category blends water with flavors traditionally found in the spice aisle.

Ayala's Herbal Water, Narberth, Pa., makes flavors like lavender mint lemongrass thyme, clove cardamom cinnamon and lemongrass mint vanilla. The unusual, antioxidant-rich drinks were launched in 100 locations earlier this year.

Initially, Ayala distributed the drinks to places like yoga studios, bakeries and pizza shops, but health food giant Whole Foods recently picked up the products, said Ayala Laufer-Cahana, founder of the young company. She attributes interest in her waters to consumers' desire to lighten up on additive- and preservative-packed libations.

“Nobody needs to drink sugar, and many people want to get away from that. It's just not healthy,” she said.

A pediatrician by training, Laufer-Cahana created her water in part as an alternative to the high-sugar, high-calorie drinks that are contributing to the obesity epidemic in America.

“I expect that the more health-oriented people who are interested in herbs and nutrition will be the first adopters to try our drinks, but even kids, who generally like sweet drinks, love them,” she said.

Meanwhile, Talking Rain, Preston, Wash., is currently rolling out its Twist Naturals and Twist Organics waters, a two-year process that began in 2006. The company's unsweetened, low-cal drinks — less than 10 calories per serving — come in flavors like West Indies lime and mango acai and are already available at Albertsons, Whole Foods, Kroger, IGA, Publix and a handful of other supermarkets, big-box stores and convenience chains.

According to Micah Bingeman, the company's director of trade marketing, shoppers have a thirst for natural and organic, whether it's food, clothing or flavored water.

“Our organics line is flavored with twists of fruit that are certified organic, which is a really big thing with consumers right now,” she said. “Using all-natural or organic ingredients like blueberry, pomegranate and acai berry also makes people comfortable, because they know these foods contain antioxidants, and if there's anything in their water, they want it to be healthy for them, even if it is just a tiny twist.”

Along with the inherent health benefits, flavored waters offer the environmentally concerned consumer an excuse to enjoy the convenience of bottled beverages on occasion, said Mona Doyle, president of the Consumer Network, Philadelphia.

“From an environmental point of view, there's the stigma that bottled water is no different than tap water, only it's packaged in a plastic container that isn't good for the environment,” she said. “If the water is flavored, it not only tastes better without being unhealthy, but it's suddenly more justifiable to carry around than plain water.”

The average consumer's flavor profile is also more sophisticated nowadays, making way for new drinks, said Scott Lowe, president of San Francisco-based MetroMint, the maker of unsweetened, mint-flavored water and a recently launched chocolate mint option.

“I think we're seeing more varieties of water-based beverages partly because we've become a society of foodies,” he said. “Water, for many, is just too boring. Consumers' palates have changed, and they demand more from beverages in terms of taste, health and variety.”

Good Advice

  • In-store sampling is still the best way to get people to try any new product. Flavored waters are no exception.
  • Many shoppers trial by purchasing a chilled, single-serve bottle at the checkout, so try stocking an assortment of flavors there and track sales to see what's most popular.
  • Ask the consumer! Put together a user panel of shoppers and ask them what waters they would or wouldn't buy — and why.
TAGS: Center Store