Last year, the beverage industry set high expectations for citrus flavors. In particular, lemon was predicted to be one of the Top 3 best-selling flavors in 2014, according to respondents of Beverage Industry’s 2013 New Product Development Survey. Although it didn’t end up in the Top 3, it did make the Top 5, according to Beverage Industry’s 2015 New Product Development Outlook Survey.

Lemon was ranked as the No. 5 top-selling flavor in 2014, with 11 percent of survey respondents reporting it as a top-selling ingredient. It also tied for the No. 2 spot on the most-used flavors list, outranked by its sibling fruit, orange. According to the survey, 49 percent of respondents used orange flavor in a beverage formulation in 2014, up 8 percentage points from last year’s survey. Lagging only slightly, 47 percent of respondents used lemon flavor in a beverage, up 1 percentage point, and 42 percent used lime flavor in a beverage, up 7 percentage points.

This year, survey respondents expect both orange and lemon to be on the Top 5 best-selling flavors list.

As the survey shows, traditional citrus flavors are continuing their popularity streak in the United States. Dolf DeRovira, president of Flavor Dynamics Inc., South Plainfield, N.J., says that orange, lemon and lime flavors are the most popular, mainly because of their prominent usage in carbonated soft drinks. However, other industry-wide trends are ensuring the longevity of these flavors.

Trendy influences

Health and wellness has been an industry-wide phenomenon, so it’s no surprise that it extended to the citrus flavors segment as well.

Since 2011, 23 percent of citrus beverage launches carried the claim “No additives/preservatives,” making it the second most prominent claim on beverage packages, according to Minerva Calatayud, strategic marketing director of beverage and sweet flavors at Kerry Inc., Beloit, Wis.

“Additionally, citrus has always been perceived as a very nutritional fruit due to the vitamins that it contains,” she says. Citrus is known to be a good source of vitamin C, but it also contains many other essential nutrients. As a result, citrus flavors have been able to ride the coattails of the health-and-wellness trend.

Ruby red grapefruit, in particular, has become popular because of its health halo. Anton Angelich, group vice president of marketing for Virginia Dare, Brooklyn, N.Y., notes that ruby red grapefruit often is used in flavored waters, spritzers and vodkas.

“With an emphasis on ‘natural,’ product developers often wish to incorporate some grapefruit juice into these products,” he explains.

Furthermore, citrus flavors have capitalized on the growth of premium beverages. In recent years, industry experts have reported premium beverages increasing in sales, despite a weak economy. This occurs because “consumers are always looking for an indulgence or way to feel special,” Calatayud says. As premium citrus-flavored alcohol beverages continue to proliferate, citrus ingredients will reap the benefits, she suggests.

Consumer interest in authenticity is another trend that is significantly impacting the citrus market, Calatayud adds.

“Consumers want products that are authentic, simple and that they can trust not only what is in it but where the ingredients came from,” she explains. “Lemon, orange and grapefruit are citrus fruits that consumers are familiar with and are perceived as authentic and simple.”

Likewise, lime is a familiar flavor that’s also being boosted by a growing Hispanic population, according to Virginia Dare’s Angelich. Lime is particularly popular in Margaritas and hydration beverages like flavored waters, he says.

As a result, these classic citrus flavors are leading the trend toward citrus flavors in the U.S. beverage market, says Dave Bowen, manager of citrus creation for Firmenich, Geneva, Switzerland.

The millennial mindset

Nevertheless, demand for exotic citrus flavors also is rising, attributed mostly to the millennial demographic, Kerry’s Calatayud notes.

“A growing sophistication of consumers and the desire for more exotic flavor profiles — especially driven by millennials — is changing the flavor profiles and innovation within the alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverage categories and increasing the need for more sophisticated citrus fruit profiles,” she says.

For instance, blends of mainstream citrus fruit with exotic citrus fruit have become very popular among millennial consumers, she notes. In particular, orange, lemon, lime and grapefruit pair well with blood orange and key lime flavors, she says.

Other exotic citrus varietals include yuzu and bergamot, which have slightly increased their growth across the globe, Firmenich’s Bowen says. Although classic citrus fruits still take the cake in the U.S. market, less-common citrus varietals enable Firmenich to fill a variety of customer needs.

“We see these tonalities as having a bright future within the world of citrus flavors, particularly with millennials who are known to be more adventurous with their food and beverage flavors than traditional consumers,” he says.

Although millennials are driving the growth of exotic citrus varietals, they’re also causing beverage-makers to innovate with new product launches more often, Kerry’s Calatayud notes.

“Eighty-eight percent of millennials are interested in trying new and adventurous foods,” she explains. “Therefore, they are always seeking the next flavor and beverage. As a consequence, they are not typically loyal to brands and, therefore, companies need to continuously ensure they offer enough variety and new launches under their brands to keep these consumers satisfied so they continue to repurchase their brands.”

To help beverage-makers innovate more quickly, Kerry offers Discovery Tools, which identify and validate new citrus flavor trends. The company’s taste experts then create and optimize unique citrus flavor combinations for the customer’s specific product needs. This process shortens the customer’s development time and allows them to get their product to market faster, explains Diana Stapleton, vice president and general manager of natural products for Kerry.

Blended offerings

Of course, exotic citrus varietals are not the only fruits working to enhance citrus-flavored beverages.

Last year, Flavor Dynamics Inc.’s Wolfgang Boehmer predicted that the big trend in citrus would be flavor blends, such as orange-strawberry, tangerine-mango or papaya-grapefruit. So far this year, it looks like his prediction wasn’t far off. According to DeRovira, the citrus blends that are currently most popular include citrus paired with mango, strawberry, peach and cranberry. These blends are most often found in the ready-to-drink (RTD) iced tea category, he notes.

As the trend of citrus blending expands to other beverage categories, Firmenich’s Bowen expects the fruits that are blended with citrus to get more exotic.

“As soft drinks and all beverage categories embrace the trend of fusions, we will continue to see more citrus blends featuring flavors like ginger, blueberry, tea, pineapple and honey, as well as further exotic blends such as blood-orange-cranberry and clementine-mandarin,” he says.

One beverage category that has experienced an influx of citrus blending is lemonade. The industry has seen lemonade-and-tea (or Arnold Palmer) combinations grow in popularity, but now lemonades are merging with fruit flavors to entice health-oriented consumers, Virginia Dare’s Angelich notes.

“As consumers are moving away from sugary carbonated beverages, we are seeing a significant and growing interest in lemonades, which are considered perceptibly healthy, retro-comforting and all-American,” he explains. “The development of this new generation of lemonades, however, is going well beyond just plain lemonade. Lemonades are being created with strawberry, sour cherry, raspberry, tangerine, mango and passion fruit flavors.”

Regardless of the flavor combinations in lemonade, it’s clear that the lemonade segment is boosting interest in lemon ingredients, says Brian Coady, vice president of sales and marketing for Citromax Flavors, Carlstadt, N.J.

Overcoming obstacles

Despite the number of trends adding to citrus ingredients’ appeal, the market still faces serious obstacles, the first of which is “greening.”

Greening is caused by an Asian aphid that leads orange trees to die prematurely, explains Citromax Flavors’ Coady. These trees also produce less juicy and more costly oranges, he notes. As a result, citrus oils and juice concentrates have risen in price and lessened in availability, says Flavor Dynamics Inc.’s DeRovira.

There is no cure for the disease, DeRovira adds. Affected trees must be isolated and destroyed.

Stemming from the greening issue, the increase in citrus consumption in developing markets is another challenge, Firmenich's Bowen notes. This can make it more difficult for a dwindling supply to meet demand.

However, suppliers have developed strategies to manage the disease.

To address the greening issue, Citromax developed “addbacks” to replenish the lost juiciness, Coady says.

Kerry participates in research to help fight citrus greening and also seeks out opportunities to support alternative citrus-growing regions, adds Ton Mesters, vice president of business development.

Overall, it’s a collaborative effort to overcome the greening solution, Firmenich’s Bowen says.

“We find that, for the most part, the industry is responding in a collaborative manner,” he says. “We work with many of our clients to overcome these challenges and see ourselves as true partners in finding sustainable solutions.”

Aside from greening, issues with solubility, stability and strength are common challenges faced during formulation, Flavor Dynamics' DeRovira says. These issues particularly take flight in natural, preservative-free beverages, Virginia Dare’s Angelich adds.

“Simple, natural, no-preservative beverage formulations can present challenges when working with lemon concentrates and flavors,” Angelich explains. “Natural lemon and other citrus flavor ingredients and components can oxidize in the course of a beverage’s shelf life and result in undesirable offnotes and soapy tastes. Product formulators need to carefully balance what processing conditions, what flavor materials, what preservation means, and what shelf life expectations they can balance and deploy to create fresh and natural-tasting lemon and citrus beverages.”

The future of citrus

More than 50 percent of the flavors sold globally

consist of citrus, according to Citromax. Also, more than one-quarter of new soft drink launches in 2014 included citrus or citrus blends, Firmenich’s Bowen says. And, citrus-flavored beverage launches increased 12 percent in the past two years, Kerry’s Calatayud adds. With these statistics in mind, it’s clear that citrus ingredients are not slowing down.

 In the future, “suppliers will continue to innovate and create citrus flavors and ingredients that meet consumers’ demands for products that are cleaner label, simple, traceable from origin, environmentally friendly and, are, of course, great tasting,” Calatayud says.