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Let the drinks do the talking

Matt White, Chair of The University Caterers Organisation (TUCO) and Director of Catering, Hotel and Conference Services at The University of Reading, discusses the rise in popularity of adult soft drinks and how businesses can shake up their offer to tap into this movement.

With a plethora of information on ingredients, diets and allergens at our fingertips, today’s consumers are more clued up than ever before on what is in their food and drink. Consumers have a better understanding of the link between what they eat or drink and their physical, mental and emotional wellbeing – so it’s no wonder that health remains top of the agenda when dining and drinking out. In fact, a report by PwC reveals that 47% of 18-34 year olds have changed their habits to enjoy a healthier diet – indicating that this trend isn’t set to slow down anytime soon.

Watermelon juice drinkWatermelon juice drink

Millennials driving low-sugar / no alcohol trend

It therefore comes as no surprise that demand for low-sugar and nonalcoholic drinks is quickly gaining momentum. Young adults in particular are driving this trend forward, with one in four under 30s choosing to be teetotal. To cater for this, operators are continually looking for ways to refresh and innovate their drinks offer and appeal to Millennials and Generation Z – something that is particularly important for universities, where young adults make up the majority of the customer base.

We are increasingly seeing new drink flavours being added to menus and have seen a prolific rise in low-sugar and no-sugar beverages. These can vary from familiar big brand options – for example here at the University of Reading, we’ve installed Coca-Cola Freestyle machines that provide access to a wealth of low calorie and sugar-free drink combinations – through to more specialist, health-orientated products and those infused with natural sweeteners such as honey, agave and maple. Hyper-functional, vitamin-dusted beverages are now flooding into the market, with catering outlets offering everything from cactus water and drinks infused with herbs and minerals, to cold-pressed watermelon and vegetable-based juices.

Apple drinkPremiumisation for all

A number of establishments are also shaking up their soft drinks offer by providing more sophisticated non-alcoholic alternatives, designed specifically with adults in mind. These often include premium or quirky ingredients such as quince, lemongrass and even lemon and orange marmalade. At the University of Reading, for example, our non-alcoholic gin is proving especially popular among teetotal students, who are more aware of the negative impact of alcohol but still enjoy the social aspect of drinking.

Furthermore, the increased movement towards more artisan and craft products is proving fruitful for operators looking to boost sales, especially as the younger generation are willing to pay more for a premium product. For example, students might perceive a pressed English apple juice priced at £2.50 - £3.00 as great value for money but think a bottle of concentrated juice at £1.50 is expensive because it is viewed as a lower quality, unhealthier choice.

CoffeeModernising the meal deal

In response to this, we are seeing more outlets, particularly in the university sector, move away from the traditional meal deal of a sandwich combined with a packet of crisps and a fizzy drink, and move towards more premium and contemporary deals. These include offers with more artisan products such as a barista-made coffee paired with a croque monsieur or bubble tea and a sushi bento box.

Catering outlets across the industry are already embracing change but there is still more innovation to come. Given the huge range of soft drinks available, the younger generation is unlikely to settle for a simple lemonade or soda water. This, combined with heightened competition from the high street, means that offering a variety of on-trend, quality and healthier drink alternatives is an absolute must to attract consumers and keep them coming back for more.

For more information on TUCO, visit

CGA’s research reveals the following about the Soft Drinks sector

  • 50% of GB consumers drinks soft drinks out of home, equating to 24 million consumers
  • £2.40 is the average price that consumers are willing to spend on a soft drink OOH
  • 48% of soft drink consumers say they would be willing to pay extra for a better quality drink
  • 60% of soft drink consumers say the range of soft drinks stocked is ‘somewhat’ or ‘extremely important’ when deciding where to visit
  • 54% of soft drink consumers believe that the range of soft drinks on offer is often predictable and boring
  • 64% of soft drink consumers would like to see a better range of soft drinks targeted exclusively at adults
  • 66% of consumers have visited a licensed venue on a night out and not drunk alcohol

Glass of BotoniqueCraft soft drinks

Following in the footsteps of the increasingly popular craft beer sector, craft soft drinks are beginning to make their mark.

“There is a lot of talk about the resurgence of adult soft drinks these days, but the reality is that most are still very sweet and fruit based,” says wine merchant Hilary Marsh, the creator of Botonique – marketed as ‘The Botanical Soft Drink For Wine Lovers’. “For someone whose tastes have been formed drinking wine and other fermented drinks where the sugar has turned to alcohol – even if they now avoid alcohol – these drinks can seem very sweet and lacking in the complexity they are used to.

“We have taken a different approach with Botonique and focused on capturing the dry refreshment, complexity, mouth feel and length of finish that wine lovers are used to. We have achieved this using not grapes, but a host of botanical extracts, sweetened with just a touch of pear juice. No artificial sweeteners, colours, flavours or preservatives.”

“Botonique combines years of professional wine-tasting experience with traditional herbal wisdom and modern nutritional science,” says creator Hilary Marsh, who previously ran Café Baroque, her own wine bar and restaurant in Covent Garden, London.

Citrus SpritzThe recently launched Rocktails range is a result of a similar desire to shake up the adult soft-drinks market.

“The ‘Citrus Spritz’ is the first in our new range of craft soft drinks,” explain Devon-based founders and restaurateurs Chris Yandell and Katie Bain. “This delicate blend combines lemon zest with juniper berries, along with base notes of grapefruit peel, and a gentle aroma of lavender and basil.

“If people are choosing not to drink, they don’t want to be armed with a big ugly glass and a sugary soft drink – they deserve something sophisticated and considered in their glass with the same level of craftsmanship as their drinking friends.

“Mindsets need to change – many people are making a conscious decision to live a healthier lifestyle; those in the food and drink industry need to cater not only for this to keep up with the demand, but also set a precedent.”

Both Botonique and Citrus Spritz tick the low-sugar boxes containing just 2.1g and 2.6g per 100ml respectively.

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