In a recent American Psychological Association (APA) article titled “Stress in America 2022: Concerned for the Future, Beset by Inflation,” the APA notes that the U.S. population has experienced an intense range of stressors during the past few years while facing a barrage of external stressors that are mostly out of personal control.

With no shortage of contributing factors for Americans’ rising stress levels, beverage-makers are turning to holistic ingredients that promote relaxation and stress relief. Experts note that new product development is helping beverage-makers meet consumers’ growing need states.

With nearly three years of pandemic-induced tension that continues today, throughout it all, foods and beverages have played a crucial role in managing stress and anxiety for many consumers, says Doug Resh, director of commercial marketing at T. Hasegawa USA, Cerritos, Calif.

“Early in the pandemic, many consumers sought out foods and drinks with functional benefits as a conscious way of managing their self-care routine, especially with products that offered stress relief and sleep assistance,” he explains. “The role of the internet and social media was also elevated during the pandemic, spreading influence about functional food ingredients and how these products fit into people’s routines, ultimately shaping consumer trends that are stronger than ever today.

“Increased consumer demand for food and beverage products that provide functional benefits like relieving stress and improving sleep have pushed holistic ingredients to the forefront of product innovation,” Resh continues. “Brands can capitalize on this demand through innovation focused on food and beverage products with functional benefits that also taste great.”

Nate Chesher, marketing director at Cherry Marketing Institute (CMI), DeWitt, Mich., echoes similar sentiments, noting that with rising stress and anxiety, consumers also have become more focused on mental health and its role in overall well-being.

“With sleep now recognized as a critical component of mental and physical wellness and the desire to ‘sleep better’ as a top driver of a healthy lifestyle, product development teams are seeking natural ingredients for product innovations to help consumers achieve a better night’s rest,” he says. “From sleep-friendly ice cream to rest-and-recover sips to calming beverages, innovations to boost relaxation are cropping up on more and more grocery shelves.

“In fact, according to Nutrition Business Journal, sleep and relaxation is a fast-growing category of functional foods and beverages, with 13.7% growth from 2020 to 2021,” Chesner continues.

Marianne McDonagh, vice president of sales at Bioenergy Life Science (BLS) Inc., Ham Lake, Minn., reiterates the important role functional foods and drinks play in helping manage stress.

“The old adage, ‘you are what you eat’ is absolutely true,’” she says. “Over-caffeinated products as well as excessive vitamin and sugar consumption are causing our stress and anxiety levels to skyrocket at an alarming rate. What we consume in our dietary supplements and functional beverages is also crucial for managing our stress and anxiety levels.

“Consumers need to continue educating themselves on what is healthy and what isn’t,” McDonagh continues. 


Cherry Marketing Institute
Tart cherries are one of the few natural food sources of melatonin, that can regulates the body’s circadian rhythm and sleep-wake cycle, CMI’s Nate Chesher notes.
Image courtesy of Cherry Marketing Institute


A plethora of ingredient options

With consumers’ growing interest in how holistic ingredients can improve their health and well-being, product development with ingredients that support relaxation are on the rise, experts note.

 “One such ingredient is melatonin, a hormone that plays a critical role in sleep by regulating the circadian rhythms,” T. Hasegawa’s Resh says. “The effects of melatonin have been common knowledge for ages, but in recent years there has been increased product development featuring melatonin, such as chamomile tea, milk and other dairy beverages, gummies and other daily supplements.   

“In recent years, there has also been an uptick in product development featuring adaptogenic ingredients, such as ashwagandha, reishi mushroom, rhodiola, ginseng, lion’s mane, dandelion, elderberry and more,” Resh continues. “While all adaptogens help the body restore balance and handle stress, specific adaptogenic ingredients are known to support energy (such as maca and schizandra), improve mental clarity (including rhodiola and lion’s mane) or even boost the immune system (such as reishi and chaga).” 

Among the more well-known ingredients, CMI’s Chesher points to tart cherries as an ingredient solution that is increasingly interesting to product development teams.

“Tart cherries are one of the few natural food sources of melatonin, the sleep hormone that regulates the body’s circadian rhythm and sleep-wake cycle,” Chesher says. “Preliminary studies on tart cherries have explored the duration and quality of sleep, insomnia, and sleep efficiency.  

“In addition to sleep, scientific researchers have explored tart cherry consumption on exercise recovery, gout attacks, arthritis symptoms, heart health, blood pressure and gut health,” he continues. 

When it comes to an ingredient that increases energy, but also supports relaxation and better sleep, BLS’ McDonagh points to the company’s Bioenergy Ribose.

 “Bioenergy Ribose, the backbone of our cells’ ATP production (The Energy Currency), gives our bodies the energy we need. It also gives us the tools to relax our bodies and improve our sleep,” McDonagh explains. “How? Because it’s much harder to relax a muscle than to contract a muscle. Consuming Bioenergy Ribose at night prior to bedtime gives cells the energy to relax our muscles, which leads to better sleep.” 


Blue Bear Functional Sleep Drink
Made with natural and organic ingredients, Blue Bear Functional Sleep Drink helps support a full night's rest with a guilt-free, sweet peach taste, the company says.
Image courtesy of Blue Bear


Delivering on taste, flavor

In the beverage industry, where taste remains king, flavor is one of the number one influences in consumers’ purchasing decisions, experts note.

Although demand for functional beverages has proven that consumers are willing to pay a premium price for tangible health benefits — products need to deliver an enjoyable taste, T. Hasegawa’s Resh says.

“Brands should leverage the scientific advancements of the flavor industry to formulate products that deliver functionality and still taste great, too,” he says. “While holistic ingredients like adaptogens deliver immense health benefits to the consumer, they often come at the expense of flavor.

“At T. Hasegawa, our scientists have developed new flavor modifying technologies that mask unwanted top notes, which are often a side effect of adding functional ingredients,” Resh continues. “Last year, we introduced BOOSTRACTTM to the North American market — a new flavor modulation technology that adds or enhances the effect of kokumi (Japanese for ’rich taste‘) in foods and beverages. This unique, all-natural technology improves the mouthfeel and richness of the taste experience, while also masking or blocking unwanted flavor notes and amplifying the flavor characteristics that consumers desire the most.” 

Casey McCormick, vice president of global innovation at Sweegen, Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., notes that by using stevia instead of sugar as a foundation — building upon it with flavors and natural taste modulators — formulators can leverage such new-generation flavor tools, opening the door for more innovation.

“Sweegen recently launched Sweetensify Flavors, the newest tool. The Sweetensify Collection captivates the part of the tongue that no sugar substitute can,” McCormick says. “When it comes to sweet quality, sweet proteins, such as brazzein, hit a different receptor than other non-caloric sweeteners. This enables a higher sweetness quality and amplifies flavor expression, creating a more sugar-like taste experience.”

Noting that taste can pose potential barriers and challenges when formulating relaxation and stress relieving drinks, CMI’s Chesher points to tart cherries as an ideal complementary ingredient. 

 As some consumers might not be as familiar with the taste of some natural ingredients —  botanicals, mushroom varietals, teas, etc. — sweet-tart flavor profiles help strike the right balance of flavor in new beverage innovations, Chesher says.

“Known for their unique, on-trend sweet tart taste, U.S.-grown tart cherries are now gaining additional attention for their versatility, nutrient density and potential health benefits,” he explains. “Tart cherries have a great taste and are a science-backed, nutrient-dense superfruit. The distinctive taste and vibrant red color of tart cherries are due to the concentration of anthocyanins, a type of polyphenol in the flavonoids family.”

Moreover, as today’s beverage trends continue to evolve, Chesher notes that U.S.-grown tart cherries are cropping up in more innovations as consumers increasingly value its unique sweet-tart flavor and nutrition benefits.

“From mocktails, smoothies, teas, drinking vinegars, kombucha, tart cherries pair well with both sweet and savory ingredients allowing product development teams to strike the right balance in a variety of flavor profiles,” Chesher explains. “Montmorency tart cherries are harvested in the summer and are quickly frozen to maximize their quintessential flavor and preserve their bright red color. This processing allows for consistent, year-round availability in various forms including dried, frozen, purred, canned, juice and juice concentrate. 

“This assortment of tart cherry products assures a seamless fit into any manufacturing environment and a variety of applications including wellness shots, frozen smoothies, dairy-based beverages and juice blends,” he continues.

 Opportunities abound

As the beverage industry continues to expand on offerings with more functional options that address stress-relief and relaxation, experts note that consumer education is crucial. 

“The biggest obstacle for the success of functional ingredients in new food and beverage launches is educating consumers on the tangible health benefits of these ingredients,” T. Hasegawa’s Resh says. “Health seekers tend to be the most skeptical consumers, so packaging and marketing of new functional products needs to specifically call-out holistic ingredients and the benefits associated with each one. These consumers are doubtful about health claims, so supporting any functional ingredient claim with third-party research is important to help overcome skepticism and encourage trial.”

BLS’ McDonagh points to consumers’ better understanding of how the body works, especially how it generates and uses energy. 

“With a better understanding of how stress compromises the body’s energy balance, and how certain foods, beverages and functional ingredients help to maintain better energy equilibrium, consumers will be better equipped to make healthier choices,” she says.  

T. Hasegawa’s Resh notes that once consumers are on-board with the benefits of functional ingredients, beverage brands have an expanded opportunity to make products designed to support relaxation and stress relief. 

“While consumers may look at taking supplements as a form of medicinal help, they turn to beverages as a source of enjoyment,” Resh says. “Brands that offer great-tasting, enjoyable beverage products which also satisfy consumer demand for functional benefits like relaxation and stress relief are poised for success as the market continues to grow. 

“In many cases, the market for functional beverages can be expanded by tapping into categories that are already successful or growing,” he continues. “Juice and tea brands can appeal to consumers in the relaxation space by incorporating new ingredients such as botanicals or nootropics that are correlated with relaxation and sleep aid.”

Linda May-Zhang, Ph.D., vice president of innovation at Blue California, Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., points to the amino acid L-theanine as a star ingredient for “anti-stress” beverages.

“With consumers seeking support to achieve their overall wellness goals, there is an excellent opportunity for beverage brands to explore adaptogens such as Blue California’s L-TeaActive L-Theanine to incorporate in current and new product launches. L-theanine supports relaxation and aids in healthy stress response by contributing to a number of changes in the brain,” she explains. “L-theanine works by dampening the effects of excitatory brain chemicals like glutamate, increasing calming and mood-elevating brain chemicals like GABA, serotonin, and dopamine, and increasing the activity of alpha brain waves.

“L-theanine is also interesting in that when combined with caffeine, a stimulant with sometimes unwanted side effects, L-theanine can ease the mind into greater focus,” May-Zhang continues. “When incorporated into functional beverages containing caffeine, L-theanine may serve as a nootropic to promote learning, elevate flow states and improve mood.”

 T. Hasegawa’s Resh notes that, although nootropics, such as L-theanine and saffron, are well known in supplement form, beverage-makers are increasingly turning to such ingredients for functional beverage formulations.

“Saffron in particular has been found to support mood by regulating serotonin levels, so it’s growing in popularity as a functional ingredient in products aimed at relaxation and mental wellness,” he explains. 

Additionally, a lot of functional product development has focused on botanicals, such as nervines (found in hops, lavender and passionflower), chamomile and lemongrass, Resh notes. 

“While these ingredients are most commonly utilized within the traditional tea category, brands are experimenting with adding botanicals to a wide range of other products such as sparkling waters, RTD teas and even cocktails,” he says.

When it comes to relaxation and stress relief beverages, BLS’ McDonagh notes that there are boundless opportunities in this space.

“This is an underdeveloped market, ready for growth and innovation,” she says. “We are targeting this market because we want to provide beverage manufacturers with safe, science-backed and effective ingredients that will provide noticeable benefits. This is key to creating brand loyalty.”