Food Forum: Tea time

Health-conscious consumers are looking for premium Ready-to-drink teas with less sugar.

By Suley Muratoglu

Reformed soda drinkers continue to look for healthier ways to get their caffeine fix. With its general halo of health and the allure of abundant beneficial antioxidants, ready-to-drink tea is particularly well positioned for continued growth in the U.S. among suleymconsumers looking for better-for-you beverage choices.

Despite recent growth, and tremendous potential for further growth, particularly at the premium end, most of the tea packaged in the U.S. is quite different than the simple “tea leaves plus hot water” recipe brewed at home or commonly found at tea shops. While tea is naturally a low-acid beverage, most of it is produced in high-acid plants where the soft drinks are produced. Supporting tea production at these sites requires manufacturers to make significant modifications to the simple “tea leaves plus hot water” product to meet federal regulations for products manufactured in a high acid plant.

All tea is equal in the sense that every type—from black, white and green to the more exotic blooming or flavored varieties—is created by steeping leaves from the plant Camellia sinensis with herbs, flowers or fruits, individually or in blends, in hot water.

In its purest form, tea’s acidity ranges from neutral to strongly alkaline. But to meet federal regulations for bottling in the more prevalent high-acid plants alongside sodas and juices, manufacturers must first alter the pH of the naturally alkaline tea, which most do by adding ascorbic acid. To reduce the bitterness caused by this acid, companies commonly add sugar or artificial sweeteners—which alleviate the harsh taste but can also change tea’s flavor. So iced tea formulations commonly found on the grocery shelves are often modified with ascorbic acid and large amounts of sugar.

Yet IRI projects that growth for these popular “mainstream” RTD teas will be flat through at least 2015, while robust growth is expected in the premium and super-premium markets in the U.S. and Canada.

Consumers who gravitate to high-end tea products want to taste the subtle differences between tea varietals, which makes the acid-plus-sugar formulation problematic. Tea aficionados also tend to be more health-conscious and pay greater attention to sugar and other additives on the label. As a result, manufacturers should consider employing a different approach for processing these products—or risk alienating these discerning consumers.

So how can manufacturers keep their tea ingredient lists short and simple, while appealing to the higher end of the market?

•Adopt Aseptic Processing and Cartons—The flash and gentle heat treatment provided with aseptic processing, which is equally effective with high- and low-acid products, helps preserve the original brewed tea quality and renders it to be shelf-stable for up to a year without the need for preservatives. Aseptic cartons keep oxygen and light away from brewed tea, preserving more of its healthful properties. Paper-based cartons have the added benefit of being lightweight and conveying a more sustainable and environmentally friendly profile that appeals to health-conscious consumers looking for natural beverages.

•Sell a Cultural Experience—Perceived health benefits are one big reason consumers are looking for cleaner-label premium teas. However, companies should not overlook the opportunity to tap into the desire, particularly of Millennial shoppers, to feel worldly and cultured. These tea drinkers know their oolong from their Darjeeling, and packaging and marketing should be short on ingredients and long on history and culture to connect with this aspiration.

•Consider Value-Added Tea Products—Kombucha and the lesser known Jun are two fermented tea products that hold health allure even beyond regular tea. Non-tea steeped drinks such as rooibos, ginseng and elderflower are growing sales in the tea space. In addition, fruit-tea hybrids are burgeoning, far beyond the standard lemonade-black tea blends, though companies should innovate while minimizing added sugars to stay on trend.

Tea manufacturers, in fact all beverage makers looking to move into tea, should very carefully survey the shifting landscape. Increasingly, North American consumers are reading product labels and looking for products that are healthful, natural and as pure and simple as tea leaves steeped in water.

Suley Muratoglu is  vice president, marketing & product management, Tetra Pak U.S & Canada. He can be reached at,  suley.muratoglu@tetrapak.com.

 

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