Natural Products Expo West

Uncle Matt’s looks to functional innovation in face of “most challenging season” for citrus sourcing

By Ryan Daily

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Expo west Orange juice Citrus functional beverage

With the increasing demand for functional beverages, Uncle Matt's is preparing for a year of product innovation in the organic juice space at the same time that it navigates another challenging season for citrus sourcing, as brand CEO and founder Matt McLean, told FoodNavigator-USA at Natural Products Expo West.

At beginning of the pandemic, McLean reacquired the brand back​ from Dean Foods. While the pandemic created uncertainty for the food and beverage industry, the timing worked in the brand’s favor, as consumers looked to orange juice once again for its functional benefits, McLean said. 

We bought the brand back from Dean Foods right in ... the beginning of the pandemic. So, we thought, ‘Hey, are we crazy to get back in this thing?’​” McLean said. “But we love what we do, and so the opportunity to get the brand back for Uncle Matt's and the family was really vital and important for us, and it was fantastic timing.​”

Innovating around functionality, lower sugar

Since McLean reacquired the brand, Uncle Matt’s has worked on innovating in the functional space, but that has always been a part of the brand’s DNA, McLean noted. “I was one of the first ever to put probiotics in orange juice, and people thought it was so crazy then … and now gut health is front and center,​” he added.  

Uncle Matt’s has “made a conscious decision a while back to discontinue our regular lemonade with cane sugar,​” McLean said. Instead of adding sugar, Uncle Matt's formulated its lemonade with stevia, but ensuring that it used "the right version, so it doesn't have that chemical aftertaste,​" he added.

And when it comes to formulating new functional beverages, orange juice is “the perfect base that can hide a lot of other ingredients, and … it's got a very strong, aromatic, delicious flavor profile,​” which makes it “really easy to put functional ingredients in it,"​ McLean said.  

Citrus sourcing remains a challenge

The brand also is addressing a historic challenge for the food and beverage industry – citrus sourcing. 

While noting the ebbs and flows of agriculture, “this is the most challenging season ever ... in our 20-something years​” for citrus sourcing for a number of reasons, McLean explained. Citrus greening has led to “a gradual decline​” of citrus crops, and “Florida is the epicenter for the problem,​” he said. And currently, "there is no silver bullet for it,​” he added.

On top of citrus greening, “two hurricanes … wiped out a lot of the crop​” in Florida, while Mexico – where Uncle Matt’s sources some of its citrus – has been in a drought, McLean said. "Those two locations are strong suppliers for North America, and they both were affected simultaneously,​” he noted.

For its part, Uncle Matt’s has “done a great job … to diversify [its] supply base,”​ McLean said. The brand has “[established] good, high-quality reliable organic-certified sources​” with a network of growers in California, Texas, Mexico, Brazil, Spain, and Greece. With this diverse supplier base, he believes that Uncle Matt’s is prepared for the challenging year ahead.

As we continue to grow, and our consumers really like our products, you never know with rapid growth how well you're able to supply to it,​" McLean said. "We've got a good team; we have a good strategy, [a] good plan. But it'll be a tough year.​”

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