Regarded as one of the greatest and most influential basketball players of all time, Julius Erving, aka Dr. J, is quoted for having said: “If you don’t do what’s best for your body, you’re the one who comes up on the short end.” While the quest to stay healthy has consumers embracing foods and beverages that help them avoid coming up “short,” experts note that plant-based waters’ various benefits have been drivers of the category’s proliferation.
Consumers might choose more than one plant water for a variety of tastes and benefits, notes Sally Lyons Wyatt, executive vice president and practice leader at Chicago-based Information Resources Inc. (IRI).
“It depends on the need as to which type of water a consumer would choose,” she explains. “For example, if you are looking for drinks high in potassium, you may choose a coconut water, however, if you are looking for an option with manganese and magnesium then you may try birch water.”
Further, as some consumers seek beverage options that are low in sugar and have additional benefits beyond one singular option, “plant-based waters deliver several benefits per serving, which is attractive to those seeking alternative options,” Wyatt says.
In its report titled “Coconut, Aloe and Other Plant-Based Beverages in the U.S.,” New York-based Beverage Marketing Corporation (BMC) notes that the plant-based beverage market will continue to be fueled by the striving for wellness and need for functionality.
“Most of this increase is expected to come from coconut waters, although plant waters should enjoy modest growth,” it states. “More recently, there have been a raft of other ‘waters’ employing the juice from plants such as maple, birch and cactus.
“The idea generally is to play on the simple, natural provenance of the core ingredient, in contrast to highly engineered beverages, and perhaps also on the closer sourcing, in contrast to coconut waters that are brought in from halfway around the world,” it continues.
As the U.S. plant-based beverage market can be segmented into coconut water and plant water, “coconut water is the larger of the two segments by far,” according to the BMC.
“In 2021, after a revival in 2020, coconut water volume grew by 5.9% to 46.6 million gallons, accounting for 77.1% of total plant-based beverage consumption,” it states. “The coconut water market had shown a tendency toward commoditization in recent years, with average prices falling by 8% between 2016 and 2021, although this may be starting to reverse due to, if nothing else, inflation.”
Meanwhile, as plant waters are a miscellany of waters including tree waters, aloe beverages and cactus water, the segment has been the fastest growing of the plant-based beverage market, although not in the past two years, according to BMC. “Between 2016 and 2021, volume grew by 42% to 13.8 million gallons,” it notes.
IRI’s Wyatt notes that, although alternative waters (predominantly plant-based) have historically lagged behind other water segments, “they have seen acceleration in 2022.”
“Coconut water is by far the most established. Growth within coconut waters has been propelled with innovation like kids’ hydration. Aloe water ranks behind coconut, but growth is flat to declining,” Wyatt explains. “The healthy claims include gut health and inflammation.
“Water extracts are very small, but have high growth potential, “she continues. “Cactus water is a driver within these waters.”
Plant waters’ various, nutritional profiles gain traction
As consumers are looking for alternative options delivering across the day and across demand moments, “beverages that deliver on hydration, as well as health and wellbeing benefits are resonating,” IRI’s Wyatt says.
“This has helped the adoption of plant waters,” she explains. “We have also seen positive traction with barley, watermelon and birch waters. However, supply and consumer engagement are a couple keys for their success.”
To engage consumers within the cannabis beverage space, Carson City, Nev.-based Cann-Ade recently launched its hemp-derived water that is flavored and colored only with organic fruit juice. Cann-Ade’s hemp-derived formula has led the brand to deem itself as “Holistic Hydration,” it says. The Cann-Ade Peach, Lemon and Strawberry-Lime varieties feature 20 mg of American-grown, broad-spectrum CBD, are gluten-free, vegan, low calorie and have a two-year shelf life, it adds.
For beverage entrepreneurs, BMC’s report notes that, “one of the more conspicuous successes in recent years has been the mainstreaming of coconut water,” which reached a broad new audience when pitched as an all-natural sports drink that is rich in electrolytes but lacking the sugar.
“Although that produced the expected proliferation of new coconut water brands, it has also had a less anticipated result: a profusion of other plant-based waters in ready-to-drink form, from plants ranging from aloe vera and cactus to maple and birch trees,” the report states. “They boast different nutritional profiles than coconut water, often shorter supply lines and sometimes a flavor that is more consonant with Middle American palates.”
In March, New York-based Graasi Barley Water launched a new line of ready-to-drink (RTD) organic waters in three flavors: Citrus Mint, Cucumber Lime and Lemongrass Ginger. Graasi Barley Water is made with organic ingredients, including organic barley grass juice powder, which comes from the tender young grass grown from barley seed, the company notes. In addition to the wellness benefits provided from barley grass juice powder (fiber, vitamins, antioxidants), each 16-ounce bottle contains 100% of the daily value of vitamin C, D and zinc, it says.
“When developing a new line of functional waters, we focused on unique ingredients that would promote overall wellness and self-care,” said Graasi’s Founder Chris LaCorata in a statement. “Barley water has been consumed by cultures around the world for thousands of years as a general wellness drink. We’re bringing it back and making it better with organic ingredients and immunity-boosting vitamins and minerals.”
Flavors, functionality key to growth
As inflation has impacted many of the products within plant-based waters, IRI’s Wyatt notes that the average price increase for a select group of these waters is plus 20%.
“Some products continue to increase in sales despite the price, while others have suffered from declines,” she explains. “Some of the declines are due to supply shortages but also lower demand. The segment will more than likely have fluctuating sales for the rest of 2022 and into 2023.
“The blurring of beverages will make it challenging to continue to find growth,” Wyatt continues. “When supply is strong, manufacturers and retailers need to target communications to those consumers who consume alternative beverages and remind them of the benefits.”
Further, Wyatt suggests consumer packaged goods (CPG) should work to have differentiation of sizes across channels and promote whenever possible. “Lastly, innovation needs to continue and provide consumers with relevant options,” she says.
In June, Vita Coco announced the launch of its new coconut water innovation: Vita Coco Coconut Juice, the brand’s first juice offering. Available in two flavors ― Original with Pulp, and Mango ― Vita Coco Coconut Juice is gluten-free and non-GMO. The drink contains 50 calories for Original with Pulp (in each 8-ounce serving) with 10 grams of sugar, and 80 calories for Mango (in each 8-ounce serving) with 17 grams of sugar.
“Coconut Juice propels us into a new category, while allowing us to bring the power of coconuts to new consumers,” said Jane Prior, chief marketing officer at The Vita Coco Co., in a statement. “A sweeter canned option of our hydrating and nutritious coconut water expands our consumption occasions by offering refreshing, bold flavors that pack the biggest taste bud punch.”
While the overall water market is rising off high consumer interest in health and wellness, flavor and function innovation will drive future market growth, according to Chicago-based Mintel’s “US Still and Sparkling Waters Market Report 2022.”
“Brands are building upon waters’ inherent health halo and transforming regular water into the ultimate functional drink, imbuing water with ingredients that support the immune system, promote gut health, and relax stressed-out consumers," it states. “Flavor innovation will also keep consumers engaged in the water market.”
Looking forward, as the “better-for-you” trend continues, more and more consumers will turn to healthy diets that include low-sugar, plant-centric and nutrient dense products, experts note.
Wyatt notes that, although IRI does not have analysis that provides the exact answer to the impact plant-based diet trends are having on the performance of plant waters; “Our point-of-view is there is a halo effect on any plant-based food and/or beverage for those who are on a plant-based diet,” she concludes.