Kombucha manufacturers must improve labeling compliance to reach full sales potential

By Elizabeth Crawford contact

- Last updated on GMT

Kombucha must improve label compliance to reach full sales potential
Growing demand for products that support gut health is fueling rapid growth in sales of fermented beverages, but for kombucha to hold on to its pole position in the category and reach its full market potential, manufacturers must improve labeling compliance and consumer messaging accuracy, according to a leading player in the segment.

“We are very bullish that the new age fermented beverages category, dominated by kombucha in US, will reach global market estimates of [about] $1.5 billion by early next decade,”​ said Sai Chaluvadi, vice president of Pure Steeps – the maker of Wonder Drink kombucha.

He explained that “while this category is seeing a real upward momentum”​ currently, it “has seen a few ups and downs and will soon reach a size where there will be a lot more visibility and awareness amongst different stakeholders,”​ elevating the need for industry players to address category challenges sooner rather than later.

In particular, he told FoodNavigator-USA, “for this category to sustain growth and retain the goodwill, there should be increased emphasis on proper consumer messaging, which includes good labeling practices.”

For example, he said, manufacturers must address the many “misnomers about the functional benefits of kombucha”​ that could mislead consumers and eventually erode their trust in the category, such as the prevalent myth that kombucha is naturally packed with probiotics.

“There are no naturally occurring probiotic strains in kombucha that confirms with the widely accepted standard definition,”​ he said. “World Health Organization defines probiotics as ‘live microorganisms which when consumed in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host.’”

To ensure Wonder Drink meets this definition, Chaluvadi said the company supplements its products with “validated functional ingredients like fructan (a prebiotic fiber) and Bacillus coagulans (a probiotic bacteria).”

Likewise, he said, labeling noncompliance around the amount of sugar and alcohol content in kombucha is a huge problem for the industry.

“Label noncompliance has become a recurring issue. Those commercial producers who are trying to replicate a home brew process are the ones most susceptible to these issues,”​ he said. “Starter cultures, popularly known as SCOBY, used in a home brew environment can potentially contain a variety of wild microorganisms. While there seems to be a definite appeal in using these organisms to produce different unique tasting brews, it is also important to recognize the inherent challenges with this approach.”

He explained: “SCOBYs from a home brew environment are unstandardized and uncharacterized, which means their actual composition is unknown and could vary dramatically between batches, hence increasing the potential food safety risk. Most times, these cultures are not robust enough to produce consistent brews on a commercial scale. So, the alcohol and sugar levels can also fluctuate significantly between batches, making accurate labeling impossible.”

Believing that companies have “a moral obligation and a responsibility as a consumer packaged goods brand to accurately label products,”​ Pure Steeps “deconstructed the traditional process”​ of brewing kombucha to find “the cause and effect relationship between various process parameters and standardized them to deliver consistent results,”​ Chaluvadi said.

The result is a consistently non-alcoholic product that allows Wonder Drink to appeal to a wider consumer demographic than some competitors and to deliver the benefits consumers want without compromising safety.

A tea-forward option in the crowded kombucha category

The company also sets its kombucha apart from the competition by drawing on the “tea heritage”​ of the product developer Stephen Lee, who also helped co-found Stash Tea and Tazo Tea, Chaluvadi said. As a result, he said, Wonder Drink is “more tea flavor forward”​ and less vinegary.

The company’s top-seller is Asian Pear & Ginger, which combines the spicy notes of ginger with the fruity, sweet pear flavor, he said, adding that Pure Steeps is continuing to innovate on the flavor front with a new line of culinary probiotic drinks, which includes Thai Carrot, Honey Lavender and Strawberry Basil.

The line first launched at Expo West in March, where the Thai Carrot won best kombucha show, added Chaluvadi.

The company also offers a line of prebiotic kombucha, which Chaluvadi said “was an easy choice for us,”​ because “after probiotics, prebiotic fiber is the second most recognizable ingredient in products that promote gut health.”

Both lines were inspired by the company’s “design philosophy of creating meaningful well-rounded products focused on great taste, safety and functionality,”​ he added.

A new look for the new flavors

As a continuum of this philosophy and to better showcase the new lines, Pure Steeps this summer and fall also is unveiling a brand refresh.

In addition to reformulating all of the Wonder Drink flavors to make them light and refreshing, the company also updated its can and bottle package design and logo to reflect the strong influence of the company’s hometown of Portland on the brand.

The new look features a white background with a delicate vegetal design that helps key call-outs better standout to consumers, including that the product is organic, has Oregon roots and has pre- or probiotics.

“Our goal with the rebrand was to differentiate Wonder Drink in the crowded kombucha space with our authenticity, clean functional ingredients, tea expertise and Portland roots,”​ Chaluvadi said, adding, “We believe our new packaging brings out the true personality of Wonder Drink: to live in the moment and to celebrate the wonder that is life.”

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