What Are Functional Beverages?

We expect more from the beverages we buy. It's no longer just about refreshment and hydration. Now our drinks need to deliver some type of functionality -- or a specific health benefit.

One of the fastest growing categories is functional pop, or sodas that have undergone a wellness makeover.

Described as the next generation of soda, functional pop is outpacing all other beverages in sales, growing 465% in the last year, for the 52 weeks ending on March 21, 2021, according to SPINS, a wellness-focused data research company.

[SEE: Benefits of Drinking Ginger Water.]

Drinks for Wellness

Sure, there are many new beverage innovations, including energy drinks, fortified juices, wellness shots and upscale sparkling waters. But there's something about soda.

Soda is a familiar and favorite flavor with nearly 100% household penetration, says David Lester, co-founder of Olipop, one of the first and largest brands of functional pop. Olipop is attempting to offer a soda-like experience with less sugar, a clean ingredient list and a relevant benefit -- digestive health. Lester tells me their most popular flavors are vintage cola, classic root beer and orange squeeze -- all iconic and nostalgic soda flavors.

Functional Beverage Trends

Howard Telford, head of soft drinks at Euromonitor International, recently reviewed the state of functional beverages on a webinar I attended. He says the largest category is currently hydration and energy, yet there's a second wave of functional beverages quickly gaining steam that focuses on digestive health and immune support.

The next breakout benefit is predicted to be sleep, relaxation, stress relief and focus or cognitive support, Telford says.

Functional pop is playing in many of these categories. Digestive health appears to dominate some of the latest products, with "digestive tonics" fortified with prebiotics or probiotics -- including Olipop, Poppi, Booch Pop and Culture Pop.

Additional functional pop brands are fortified with nootropics, or a set of ingredients that claim to enhance brain health, including memory, clarity and creativity.

[SEE: Healthy Drinks Rich in Electrolytes.]

Here's an overview of some of the largest functional pop brands.


Functional benefit: digestive health.

Olipop got an early start in the functional pop arena in late 2018 and has seen significant growth since -- jumping 1,000% in sales since the start of the pandemic, co-founder David Lester tells me.

The sodas are positioned as digestive tonics fortified with prebiotics, or the food to fuel good bacteria. Lester and co-founder Ben Goodwin, who is personally passionate about studying the gut microbiome, were previously involved in a business focused on probiotics, or good bacteria. Now they've switched their attention to prebiotics, which they believe is the future of gut health research.

Of all the functional pop brands, Olipop appears to put a greater emphasis on research and has alliances with multiple scientists. Lester notes that the research they've conducted on Olipop to demonstrate the effectiveness of the prebiotic-fortified soda to enhance the diversity and balance of bacteria in the microbiome.

They use a blend of prebiotics, plant fiber and botanicals including Jerusalem artichoke, chicory root, kudzu root, nopal cactus and calendula flower that they say work together to provide the unique gut health benefits.

Beyond the classic soda flavors, Olipop is available in cherry vanilla, strawberry vanilla, ginger lemon and a new flavor for summer, orange cream -- reminiscent of an orange creamsicle. The drinks are sweetened with a combination of fruit, cassava syrup and stevia leaf extract.

Nutrition content: 45 calories, 2-5 g sugar, 9 g fiber.

[Read: Matcha vs. Coffee: Which Is Healthier?]


Functional benefit: digestive health.

Poppi is another sparkling prebiotic soda, but this brand relies on apple cider vinegar as the active ingredient. However, there's little evidence that apple cider vinegar is a true prebiotic. Yes, whole apples contain pectin, which is a prebiotic fiber that helps fuel good bacteria. Yet you won't get much pectin in the 1 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar that's in each can, which contains 0 grams of fiber.

More often people believe apple cider vinegar contains probiotics, and that's not really true either. Since apple cider is fermented, it does contain bacteria if it's "raw" and "live," but that doesn't make it a probiotic.

Poppi was founded by husband and wife team Allison and Stephen Ellsworth who used to sell their creation at local farmers' markets in Dallas. The drinks were called "Mother" at the time, which refers to the combination of yeast and bacteria formed during the fermentation of apple cider. They got a big break on ABC's Shark Tank, and then the drinks were rebranded from Mother to Poppi, and the packaging was changed to brightly colored, Instagram-friendly cans. The brand aims to put the "fun" in functional.

The drinks may be fun, but I'm not sure they're truly functional. I was concerned to see all of the hyped-up claims on their website. Apple cider vinegar may be trendy, but there's so much misinformation floating around the internet about this salad dressing ingredient. Co-founder Allison was motivated to develop the drinks because she said apple cider vinegar cured her chronic health issues. Now they claim Poppi is a "detox powerhouse" and "metabolic miracle" that promotes weight loss. Described as "bubbles with benefits," Poppi purportedly lowers cholesterol, stabilizes blood sugar, boosts immunity and helps your skin glow. That's a lot of promises for a spoonful of apple cider vinegar.

Besides classic cola, root beer, doc pop and orange soda, Poppi is available in a wide variety of flavors including raspberry rose, strawberry lemon, blueberry, watermelon, pineapple mango and grapefruit. The drinks contain 3% to 7% juice and are lightly sweetened with organic cane sugar and stevia.

Nutrition content: 20-25 calories, 4-5 g sugar, 0 g fiber.

Booch Pop

Functional benefit: digestive health.

The functional pop from Health-Ade, makers of a popular kombucha brand, blends kombucha with prebiotics, minerals and fruit. Similar to Poppi, the founders of Health-Ade are a husband and wife team who started off in farmers' markets. For Booch Pop, they use an entirely different approach by combining kombucha with other ingredients they claim promote digestive health, including prebiotic fiber from cranberry juice powder. Yet, the drink contains 0 grams of fiber per serving, so it's hard to believe there's a significant amount.

They also tout the drinks as mineral-rich with calcium and magnesium from seaweed, yet the nutrition labels indicate zero amounts. I found that extremely curious, especially since they claim these minerals nourish a happy gut -- reducing unwanted stomach acid and relaxing muscles in the digestive tract. Well, how's that possible with levels so low?

Booch Pop flavors include lemon + lime, pom berry with pomegranate and elderberry, and ginger fizz. The drinks contain 5% to 10% juice and are sweetened by a combination of cane sugar and cold-pressed juice.

Nutrition content: 40-60 calories, 8-11 g sugar, 0 fiber.

Culture Pop

Functional benefit: digestive health.

As the name implies, Culture Pop contains probiotics, or live active cultures, instead of prebiotics like the other digestive sodas. The drinks are made with organic fruit juice, spices and herbs, such as turmeric, basil and chili powder.

Even though Culture Pop is described as a soda you can feel good about, the products are less about classic soda pop flavors. Varieties include orange mango with chili and lime, watermelon with lime and rosemary, ginger lemon with turmeric and wild berries with basil and lime. The probiotic sodas contain 3% to 5% juice and are sweetened with cane sugar and juice concentrates.

Nutrition content: 40 calories, 9 g sugar.

Other Sodas With Benefits

Other players in the category include Fit Soda that boasts about branched-chain amino acids and electrolytes for muscle growth and exercise recovery. Yet the drink contains 0 calories, 0 carbs, 1 gram of protein and 0% potassium, so not sure how that's going to help with recovery beyond hydration. The line offers traditional soda flavors, including black cherry cola and root beer vanilla float.

The same company has another drink called Koios that's described as a brain and immunity-boosting beverage. It contains medium-chain triglycerides (commonly called MCT) from coconut oil, ginseng, lion's mane mushroom and "lots of B vitamins." It's a concerning amount of B vitamins: 20,833% vitamin B12 and 588% of vitamin B6.

So if you're interested in exploring the growing category of functional pop, just be sure you know what you're buying. Read nutrition labels and ingredient lists carefully. Some may not always live up to their claims, but it could be a good way for you to cut down on calories and sugar. Or it's OK to enjoy a beverage that's refreshing and enjoyable, without demanding something more.