As consumers continue taking a more hands-on approach to their health, beverages touting functionality, natural ingredients, and other health-related benefits are dominating the market. Rising health trends and changing consumer behaviors demonstrate the importance for beverage brands to be aware of how nutritional value, ingredients, and the way in which they’re listed on the label can affect consumer perceptions of a product – and ultimately whether it gets picked up off the shelf.

This week, we spoke to Flavorman Director & Beverage Architect Kristen Wemer, who was happy to shed some light on the most common misconceptions surrounding health and beverages.

Misreading Nutrition

Nutrition is an important topic for 90 percent of our clients when we’re discussing what ingredients they’d like in their beverage; however, many don’t necessarily understand the nuances of nutrient groups or how to interpret a nutrition label.

“There’s often a disconnect in people’s understanding of the relationship between calories and sugar: if a client tells us they want their drink to be under 100 calories, we can absolutely do that – but because we’re working with beverages which are typically sweetened in some way, their drink may still have as much as 25 grams of sugar – the largest contributor to calorie count for drinks. So while 100 calories is considered low for a beverage, 25 grams of sugar in one drink can seem really high.”

“Essentially, the problem is that many consumers and clients alike don’t understand how everything adds up – the number of calories that each nutrient group contributes to the overall composition of a drink. The new FDA labels have made this a little easier to grasp. Overall calories is one area they’ve made bigger on the new labels. And if you know what contributes to those calories, that’s even better; a lot of people don’t know carbohydrates have 4 calories per gram, protein has 4 calories per gram, fat has 9 calories per gram, alcohol has 7 calories per gram… You can see the breakdown right there on the label.”

“‘Added sugar’ is a also new section on the labels that helps clarify what sugars are naturally occurring in a drink, and which are added by the manufacturer – but again, it can be misleading if you don’t know the difference. I was at the supermarket and witnessed firsthand an exasperated shopper exclaim, ‘all of these juices have sugar in them!’ because she assumed it was all added sugar. But there are many juices, milks, and other drinks that contain natural sugars. That’s an important difference.”

An Oversimplified Clean Label Trend

It’s not enough to understand the nutrition breakdown and labeling alone, it’s also important for beverage brands to be aware of how consumers are interpreting the quality of their drink based off of their own knowledge of nutrition. The rise of the clean label trend is proof of this fact. Today, consumers aren’t just looking at the nutrition label; they’re also carefully evaluating beverage ingredients, searching for drinks with short, simple lists with recognizable, easy to pronounce ingredients.

You may have heard the advice, “If you can’t pronounce it, it’s probably bad for you” – but this can be incredibly misleading.

The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) requires beverage brands to label certain ingredients by their scientific names,” says Wemer. “Take ‘cobalamin’ for example. It’s a long, scary word and can be considered ‘hard to pronounce’ – but it’s just vitamin B12! Because the FDA requires full names of ingredients to be used, beverage makers who want to add vitamins to their drinks are going to have longer ingredients statements which goes against the concept of ‘clean label.’ This trend is a perfect example of how well-meaning people can very easily take things out of context without really understanding the science, and that can become an unnecessary source of mistrust or ill sentiment against a product or even a brand.”

The recent lawsuit against LaCroix provides another example. Many people are familiar with the case in which LaCroix was accused of using flavor additives in their seltzer drinks with ingredients like linalool, which is also used in cockroach insecticide. However, linalool is naturally occurring. It can be found within many different types of flowers and spice plants, including mints, scented herbs, laurels, and cinnamon. So even though linalool is indeed used for insecticides, the chemical alone is not poisonous to humans.

Same goes for the other two chemicals referenced in the lawsuit. Limonene is a naturally occurring chemical and a major component of oil extracted from citrus peels. It’s commonly used to give foods or other products a lemony flavor and fragrance and research has shown that it’s harmless to humans. Likewise, for linalyl propionate, a flavoring and fragrance additive derived from plants like ginger and lavender.

“If you’re an aspiring beverage creator, it helps to have a clear picture of what drink you’re trying to develop and familiarity with similar products there are on the market. Look at those ingredient statements so you get the right context. A lot of people say they want clean label, but they’ve never tried standard products in the category they are looking for, or with the flavors and ingredients they expect. You might be surprised by what you see.”

The Misplaced Fear of Natural and Artificial Flavors

While there’s nothing wrong with seeking out clean label products, it’s worth remembering that all of the ingredients in our food and drinks have been extensively studied and deemed safe for consumption by the FDA. If you’re still in need of convincing, it helps to familiarize yourself on the some of the basic science that goes into creating much of what we consume. Let’s start with flavors.

A flavor is defined as a mix of volatile aroma chemicals which provide a specific smell and taste impression for a food or beverage. In the beverage industry, the perception of these volatile chemicals is often negative, despite the fact that they’re found in every natural food we eat. The ingredient statements for fruit demonstrate what this means:

This is exactly what a consumer would not want to see on their ingredients panel, but the truth is in the composition. What is truly amazing is that the chemicals listed make up anywhere from 0.01-0.10% of the fruit, but are responsible for nearly 100% of the taste. The rest of the fruit’s composition (99.9%) is water, sugar, acids, fats, proteins, color, starch, vitamins, fiber, and other components responsible for texture, sweetness, and acidity – all of which support flavor. But take the flavor chemicals away, and you’re left with a generic sweet, tart, and crunchy fruit lacking any unique, distinguishable taste. In other words, without flavor chemicals, there’s nothing to help you discern whether you’re eating an apple, pear, or another fruit. Without their color, acid, and sweetness differences, an orange, lemon, lime, and grapefruit would “taste” pretty much the same.

Ultimately, there are all kinds of volatile and nonvolatile chemicals that occur naturally to produce the unique aroma, texture, appearance, and taste of a food or drink. Beverage flavors are usually the result of a combination of natural flavors, which set up the basic taste profile of a product; and artificial flavors, which modify that taste to accentuate, distinguish, or enhance it. So while flavor additives don’t necessarily contribute nutritional value, they are what provide the majority of a food or drink’s distinguishable taste and aroma characteristics.

The U.S. Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) put forth by the FDA strictly defines what can be considered a natural or artificial flavor for human consumption:

  • Put simply, Natural Flavors are substances obtained from plant or animal raw materials, by physical, microbiological or enzymatic processes. They can be either used in their natural state or processed for human consumption but cannot contain any “nature identical” (the chemical equivalent of natural flavors) or artificial flavoring substances. Essentially, it must come from a natural source and use a natural process to extract the flavor.
  • Meanwhile, Artificial Flavors are substances not identified in a natural product intended for human consumption, whether or not the product is processed. However, it’s worth noting that the compounds used to produce artificial flavors are almost identical to those that occur naturally.
  • Finally, Natural & Artificial Flavors are substances that contain both natural and artificial components to produce the end product. Natural & artificial flavors are generally less expensive than the natural versions of the same flavor, which make them appealing to beverage creators.

With this understanding, it’s clear that just because your drink contains natural or artificial flavors, doesn’t mean it should be discounted among clean label and other health-forward classifications of food or drinks.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there about what’s dangerous, good for you, bad for you… don’t believe all the scary things you read online! At the end of the day, the best way to make decisions about any product is to take steps to stay informed and educate others – whether you’re a consumer, beverage brand, or both.”

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Written on October 16, 2019.