6 Brands Dominating The Explosive Functional Beverages Market
The marketplace for functional beverages has seen tremendous growth in recent years, with market valuation exceeding $110,000 million in 2020. According to the Whole Foods 2022 Trends predictions, sales will continue to soar, doubling in the next decade. Consumers, especially those from Gen Z, are looking for healthier options than the traditional sodas their parents grew up on, and many are also interested in sober living.
Functional beverages include ingredients such as herbs, mushrooms, electrolytes, vitamins, minerals and probiotics, and they also have low sugar content and few artificial ingredients. Here, the founders of six popular functional beverage companies — Ultima Replenisher, RASA, Plants by People, Casamara Club, OCA, and Ahista Tea — share their stories and secrets of success.
1. Ultima Replenisher
Ultima Replenisher sells hydrating drink powders that provide electrolytes without the sugar of most leading sports beverages. All Ultima Replenisher products are vegan, non-GMO, Keto, Paleo, and free from sugar, soy and gluten. The brand is available in thousands of stores including Walmart, Whole Foods, CVS, Sprouts and online on Amazon, Target, and Ultima’s own website.
As Ultima does not have a CEO or president, the company is run by the VP of Sales, Skeet Freeman, and VP of Marketing Loretta Reilly. Reilly always has been a runner. Later in life, she wanted to give back, so she became a high school track and field coach. As a self-described health nut, she felt Ultima aligned perfectly with her passions and interests. She has been able to give consumers exactly what they need without any of the junk, and also to support people on their wellness journeys.
“I channeled the same attitude and approach I had implemented as a track coach into my career – I wanted to fill a void for health-conscious consumers that was not being met,” says Reilly. “Ultima was a very small company for a very long time. We were definitely David in the David & Goliath story. So, we worked together as a team and gave every ounce of ourselves to bring the brand to life. Today, we are proud to be a go-to product that is widely available to many types of consumers from fitness buffs, to weekend warriors, to plant-based eaters, to those following a clean keto or low-sugar diet.”
To aspiring entrepreneurs, Reilly says, “You must start with something you believe in. Something that aligns with your mission in life. This will get you out of bed every morning. For me, it has been knowing that I am making a difference.”
Lopa van der Mersch is the founder and CEO of RASA, a line of coffee alternatives that harness herbs and adaptogens to energize. Formulated by clinical herbalists and sustainably made, RASA products include herbal adaptogens designed to decrease stress and increase energy without relying on caffeine. In 2021, revenues increased 60% over the previous year and are projected to reach $10 million in 2022.
“Rasa is a seamless expression of my joy in creating a business that uplifts the entire ecosystem that it depends on, from employees to suppliers to customers to investors and beyond,” says van der Mersch. “I’m also obsessed with energy—how we source, spend, and drain it—and Rasa’s mission is to transform the way we energize via herbal coffee alternatives.”
The biggest challenge van der Mersch has faced in her entrepreneurial journey, she says, is herself. “My fears, upper limits, limiting beliefs, and imposter syndrome are a worthy, formidable opponent to the enormous visions I have for Rasa. Entrepreneurship is a fantastic avenue to see how you’re getting in your own way.”
To aspiring change makers, van der Mersch offers this advice. “Go for your ikagai—a Japanese word that signifies the intersection between what you love, what the world needs, what you’re good at, and what the world will pay you for. Entrepreneurship is a hard, long road; a marathon with numerous sprints along the way. If your business sits comfortably within your ikagai, then you’ll have the energy and stamina to see it through.”
3. Plants by People
Jing DiPiero has leveraged her knowledge of herbal medicine to launch the plant-based wellness beverage company Plants By People, which offers five flavors of organic, superfood and adaptogen plant tonics. Available in powder form, all products are easily transported and require no refrigeration.
Born in Beijing, DiPiero appreciated the value of holistic medicine and self-care from a young age. She brings nine years of experience in the medical education industry to her current business. As a mother of two, she also understands the importance of healthy, clean and green food on individuals, as well as our overall economy and society.
DiPiero developed a resistance to antibiotics at age 5, so her parents brought her to a naturopathic doctor for alternative treatment. She also watched her grandmother, a lifelong chain smoker, recover from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma after taking potent herbs. This is when DiPiero became fascinated with the power of herbs.
After moving to the U.S., DiPiero worked in a multinational life science company, but she left upon having two children. She then founded a medical education company in 2013, but the Covid pandemic brought international conferences and trainings to a halt. With more time on her hands, she founded Plants By People in September 2020 with the belief that plant tonics will transform traditional herbal medicine to suit modern life.
“Entrepreneurship can be lonely, as it requires deep thinking and creative time,” says DiPiero. “When you look beyond personal gains, you will draw like-minded people to join this incredibly exciting journey.”
4. Casamara Club
Casamara Club creates refreshing, non-alcoholic beverages that harness the flavor of botanical extracts in an effort to combine Italian aperitivo culture with American mixology techniques. The sodas are made with minimal ingredients, and contain only four grams of sugar and 20 calories or less. Launched with a line of amaro club sodas in 2018 by founder Jason LaValla, Erica Johnson joined as head of production in 2021 to develop a new series of Americana-inspired leisure sodas.
“I’ve always been interested in the way that food connects people,” says Johnson. “It’s central to the way we relate to each other, whether you are cooking a big holiday meal for friends and family or meeting someone for the first time over a drink. While alcohol is often the default, we make non-alcoholic drinks that channel the things people love best about good wine and beer – thoughtful sourcing and balanced flavors. At the end of the day, it’s special to be able to make something that is really fun, healthy, and tastes great.”
Johnson offer this advice to aspiring entrepreneurs. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Running a business will raise a number of challenges that will surprise you. If you don’t have the answer, there’s a good chance that someone in your community will. At Casamara Club, we are collaborators through and through, and the business is better for it.”
OCA creates plant-based energy drinks powered by tapioca, an extract from the cassava root native to Brazil. The functional beverages, which are available in Kroger stores nationwide and online at Amazon and the company website, are the result of a collaboration between Beliv, a leader in the global beverage industry, and Magnus Media, which is led by Latin music sensation Marc Anthony. OCA products are organic, vegan, gluten-free and low in sugar, and they contain 120 mg of natural caffeine that claims to provide a long-lasting energy boost without the crash or jitters.
Gabriela Ramírez is the cofounder and senior brand director for OCA. She never has been an avid coffee drinker, and yet she spent years struggling with low energy levels. Every product she tried left her disappointed, with many leading to an inevitable crash and burn. When in 2021 she realized that the per capita volume consumption of energy drinks in the U.S. was the highest worldwide, she found herself wondering if there was a natural way to boost energy.
“OCA was the opportunity I had been dreaming of since growing up in Guatemala – to be a category-changer and part of something from the ground up that made a true difference,” says Ramírez. She and her team at Beliv researched and tested many different combinations until landing on OCA’s plant-based recipe.
As a Latina entrepreneur, Ramírez always has wanted to inspire women and be a role model for other Latinx people. She says, “My goal is to be one of the first female entrepreneurs to create a billion-dollar beverage brand, and to show other women that success is possible no matter your background, as long as you have the drive, determination and the best team who dream with you.”
Her greatest advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is to keep your vision and customer experience at the forefront of your business. “Throughout my entrepreneurial journey, I have felt empowered by Kobe Bryant’s Mamba Mentality,” Ramírez explains. “Focusing on the process and trusting in the hard work when it matters most.”
6. Ahista Tea
Ahista Tea produces and sells high-quality teas that use single-ingredient leaves, spices, herbs, and flowers that claim to be capable of elevating your health, mood, and experience. All teas are locally grown in India and are free from preservatives or additives. Ahista supports fair-trade practices. All production, sourcing and manufacturing is run by women, with the aim of empowering female tea-makers and bringing gender equality into the industry. In addition, Ahista offers tea ware and premium zero-waste tableware pieces made from locally-sourced recycled ceramics.
Founder Ashmit Patel feels that even though tea is central to culture in many countries, there isn’t a clear idea yet of what “rare” and “premium” teas really are. “Everything is labelled so,” he says. Ahista sells their tea in Michelin-starred restaurants, plant-based cafes, and luxury boutique hotels that value the company’s commitment to slow, sustainable, fair-trade production of a high-quality product.
“In many agricultural industries, tea relies on female labor,” Patel says. “While women make up most of the workforce, they are underrepresented at a senior level, with few opportunities to progress. After traveling through many small, family-run tea gardens across India, we identified the need to give women the chance to expand their skills and responsibilities. Supporting women is one of our core values.”
Patel offers this advice to aspiring change makers. “First, have aggressive patience. You need to understand that things take time. Second, have a clear plan and vision in place, but don’t get married to the original plan. If things need to change, you may need a rebrand. Finally, everyone says it, but margins, margins, margins. Your margins need to make sense from the jump.”