As I sat down to write this month’s Beverage Beat column, it was hard to believe that the holidays are already over and we have ushered in the new decade. The operative word is “new” as the beverage industry prepares to embrace its ongoing thirst for creativity and innovation.

In 2010, the beverage sector experienced 23,573 new products on a global basis, according to Mintel International’s Global New Product Database. Of these launches, 3,617 were in the United States and 4,380 in North America at large. Interestingly, 344 of the 4,380 new products in North America had a “functional” claim.

The beverage industry was not immune to the economic turmoil - although on balance it exhibited more stability than many other sectors of the economy. Some planned new product introductions were delayed, and in certain instances canceled. Many of the younger entrepreneurial-type companies had growth plans stymied as access to the capital markets became almost non-existent.

As we enter the new year, numerous signs have shown that the vast innovation pipeline is alive and well again. I have had any number of conversations in recent months with executives at beverage companies as well as ingredient manufacturers that strongly support this renewed vitality. Beverage Industry recently completed its 2011 Product Development Outlook Survey in which

45 percent of respondents indicated that they plan to launch more new products into the marketplace in 2011, 44 percent the same and only 12 percent plan to decrease in comparison to 2010 launches.

This brings me back to the health and wellness platform alluded to above. This topic was considered a trend just a few short years ago. We no longer refer to it as a trend. It has evolved into a built-in set of expectations on the part of consumers. Brand owners are stepping up to the plate in developing new beverage products that deliver a multitude of health efficacy benefits to meet consumers’ needs and wants.

New beverage products are delivering benefits on a broad spectrum of nutritional and health-related areas. They are not only providing meaningful hydration, but supporting today’s consumers’ desire for active healthy living. Beverage products are offering diverse benefits that support cognitive, digestive, bone, and heart health as well as weight management, vitamins, minerals and more. In many instances, these products also are satisfying consumers’ thirst for natural and organic.

As I look ahead, I envision a day in the not too distant future where enlightened retailers will rethink some of the traditional merchandising paradigms for their stores. I can foresee warm shelves and coolers being set in such a way to match the health efficacy benefits being offered by the various beverage brands. Stores will actually be organized by health category that will make comparison shopping for consumers both fun and efficient.

As we enter the new year and new decade, I raise my glass to toast the exciting beverage community that we are all proud to be a part of. The creativity and innovation that serves as the cornerstone and life blood of today’s beverage companies has never been more robust. I wish you all a healthy, happy and prosperous 2011!