The Future of Coffee: Functional Ingredients and Innovation Opportunities

From its undefined origin to the centuries-long debate over whether it’s healthy for you, coffee might be one of the most mysterious beverages in the world. No one quite knows how or when coffee was discovered, but there are plenty of legends about it, according to the National Coffee Association.

To explain coffee’s origin, the association tells the legend of a goat herder named Kaldi who first discovered the potential of these beans on the Ethiopian plateau. Kaldi noticed that after his goats ate berries from a certain tree, they became so energetic that they didn’t want to sleep at night.  

Kaldi shared his findings with the abbot of the local monastery who made a drink with the berries and found he was alert through the evening prayer. The abbot told other monks about his drink and knowledge of the energizing berries spread. In the 15th century, coffee cultivation and trade began on the Arabian Peninsula. By the 16th century, coffee was well known in Persia, Egypt, Syria and Turkey. Coffee houses soon followed and became a hub for social activity. 

By the 17th century, coffee had made its way to Europe and was popular among many. However, there were some people who reacted to the new beverage with suspicion or fear, calling it the “bitter invention of Satan.” The local clergy condemned coffee when it came to Venice in 1615. According to the National Coffee Association, “the controversy was so great that Pope Clement VIII was asked to intervene. He decided to taste the beverage for himself before deciding, and found it so satisfying that he gave it papal approval.”

And this is where we believe one of the longest-running debates in history started – whether coffee is good or bad for you. Albeit the debate most people are familiar with today focuses on health and wellness rather than whether coffee is Satan’s creation, but Venice in 1615 is where controversy over the beverage first began. 

The Whiplash Effect

In the 1870s in the United States, drinking coffee was advised for those interested in having good manners and an article in a Tennessee newspaper even suggested “unsweetened coffee cures bad breath,” according to The Atlantic. By the early 1900s, however, doctors and medical associations were calling caffeine “poison” and said coffee would lead to a “nerve storm.” These reports led to ads for “scientifically brewed” coffee that would produce health benefits and marketing schemes that encouraged people to drink coffee so they could sell indigestion pills, according to The Atlantic.

Centuries of rumors, marketing, inaccurate and legitimate research have all contributed to what writer Andrew Revkin calls “whiplash journalism” or contradictory messaging about coffee’s effect on your health. While early studies suggested coffee could lead to health problems, new research is again changing the narrative. 

“The overall evidence has been pretty convincing that coffee has been more healthful than harmful in terms of health outcomes,” said Frank Hu, chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in April. “For most people, moderate coffee consumption can be incorporated into a healthy diet.” 

Hu explained that early research linked coffee to diseases like heart disease and asthma, but many of the participants in those studies also smoked. Because of that, researchers may have been led to think that coffee was responsible for the effects that are now linked with cigarettes. 

Research now suggests drinking coffee offers several health benefits including helping you feel more energized and smarter, improving physical performance, and lowering your risk of type 2 diabetes, cancer and Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Today, the coffee category continues to see growth as consumers embrace the health benefits. The U.S. Census Bureau, Economic Census estimates the market reached $15.6 million in sales last year and is forecasted to reach $18.3 million in 2025. 

Functional Ingredients: An Innovation Opportunity

So, how can coffee be positioned as an even better-for-you beverage as health and wellness remain a top priority for consumers?

Over the last few years, consumers have become more aware of the impact of what they put in their bodies. They know that what they put into their body can have a profound impact on how they feel. This became even more of a focus recently thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, resulting in consumers looking for more ways to help take care of their body, turning to foods and beverages with benefits to help answer this need.

Simple, clean labels and an emphasis on natural ingredients will only continue to increase in demand as consumers know that eating well beautifies our bodies from the inside out. Health claims in the beverage space are moving beyond the traditional as we see functionality come into play with a focus on holistic physical health and emotional wellbeing. 

Since the start of the pandemic, online searches on “how to get your brain to focus” have surged 300%, according to British political and cultural magazine New Statesman. Sixty-five percent of consumers are interested in products that help them wake up fresh and 61% are interested in products that offer a natural energy boost.

Coffee is well-positioned to highlight “natural energy” for anything from focusing on work to a pre-workout boost. Some ready-to-drink examples in the market include Starbucks’ Triple Shot Energy Extra StrengthMonster Espresso and Milk and PowerPress The Longest specialty coffee. 

In addition to caffeine, consumers are gravitating towards ready-to-drink coffee options that offer antioxidants, probiotics and other health benefits. According to Mintel’s US Coffee Market Report, 47% of coffee drinkers in the U.S. want options that include antioxidants, 40% want ingredients that promote brain health and 30% want to see anti-inflammatory benefits or have added probiotics. 

Functional claims in coffee are still niche, but there is an untapped opportunity to keep up with the rise of functional claims in the wider beverage market. Recent product launches in the market looking to meet this need include Starbucks’ Coffee with Essential VitaminsPulsin’s Iced Coffee Plant-Based Protein ShakeLoco Coffee’s Cold Brew and Exalt’s Morning Glory.  

‘Free From’ Claims Rise

While consumers seek products with functional ingredients, they also want to know nothing is added into the beverages they consume that might negatively impact their health. In terms of ready-to-drink beverages, consumers are most interested in claims such as low or reduced sugar, which saw a 700% increase over the past year, according to Mintel. In addition, sugar-free claims rose 600% and ethical – toxin-free claims saw a 200% increase. 

Ready-to-drink coffee has recently been heralded as a healthier and natural alternative to sugary soft drinks and energy drinks. Products with low-calorie claims continue to launch at a steady rate, including Arctic Coffee’s Skinny LatteJimmy’s Iced Coffee Skinny Flat White and Rocka Nutrition’s Skinnyccino Iced Coffee.

How Can Synergy Flavors Help? 

At Synergy Flavors, we specialize in flavor creation with more than 150 years of experience and 60,000 flavor formulations in our database. Our expertise lies in many different categories, including coffee and tea. Together with our customers, we co-develop beverage products that appeal to the constantly evolving consumer through our development solutions, flavor expertise, production support and industry network.

To request a sample or for more information on how Synergy Flavors can help, contact us today!