The beverage industry is witnessing a significant evolution in the realm of hydration products, reflecting a movement that has stretched far beyond the reaches of food and beverage. In fact, this cultural phenomenon has found its way even into mainstream media. In a recent episode, hit comedy South Park satirized functional hydration brands like PRIME and their rise to fame through popular social media influencers, featuring a parody product simply named CRED.

The success of PRIME hydration beverages earned itself a parody in a recent South Park episode

PRIME is not alone in its rise to cultural ubiquity. Brands like Stanley have experienced a resurgence from near extinction by offering colorful water tumblers that have sparked consumer enthusiasm. The giant water drinkware, clocking in at 40 ounces in size, is even pursued frenetically during limited-edition Target store drops across America, oftentimes selling out completely. Social media and late-night comedy parodies of carrying this crazed tumbler to stay “hydrated” have gone viral through memes, TikToks, and Saturday Night Live, further emphasizing the significance of hydration in contemporary culture.

Research Shows the Growth of Hydration

This cultural trend is bearing out in marketplace research. A 2023 report from Innova Market Insights shows that 1 in 4 consumers globally have purchased a food or beverage product for hydrating functions. Additionally, their data from the last three years has shown a 10% growth in beverage products that make a hydration related claim.

What’s Driving the Hydration Trend

Hydration brands today are becoming cult favorites, not unlike 25 years ago when red, orange, and yellow Gatorade was wildly popular. But instead of social media influencers, Gatorade owed much of its success to advertising campaigns such as “Be Like Mike” that made the brand synonymous with basketball great Michael Jordan. Two decades later, evolving ingredients and consumer preferences have reshaped hydration beverages, emphasizing functional ingredients for enhanced benefits. These products often contain electrolytes, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients crucial for overall health. Additionally, these beverages are tailored to specific preferences and dietary needs, with a clear trend towards low-sugar and low-calorie formulations. Beverages like PRIME and CORE provide a healthier alternative to consumers who are concerned about excessive sugar intake, all the while aligning with the cultural shift towards health-conscious products and habits — like hydration.

By incorporating vitamins, antioxidants, and adaptogens, these functional beverages offer added benefits like immune support and energy enhancement. This holistic approach interests consumers already seeking hydration, and attracts those who want the convenience of one-stop-shop wellness.

Hydration beverage brands like PRIME, Wow Hydrate, Core Hydration, and Vitamin Well tout functional ingredients like vitamins, electrolytes, and antioxidants to increase their appeal to wellness consumers

What’s Next for the Hydration Trend

Traditionally, hydration beverages have been packaged in single-serve plastic bottles, ranging from 12 to 24 ounces. However, with a growing emphasis on environmental consciousness, brands are exploring alternative delivery methods that produce less environmental waste. Innova research indicates that among new product launches, bottled water packaging declined from 69% in 2018-2019 to 57% in 2021-2022. Additionally, 14% of bottled water consumers express the use of more sustainable packaging as an influential factor in their purchase decisions. As alternatives to traditional bottled and canned packaging, gain popularity, it’s only natural that powdered stick packs and drink tablets will gain in popularity. These formats reduce reliance on single-use plastic, aligning with eco-friendly practices and reflecting a commitment to sustainability.

Powdered stick packs and drink tablets offer both convenience and versatility. They provide a portable solution for staying hydrated, which is ideal for active lifestyles or travel. Additionally, they often contain functional ingredients like energy boosters and electrolytes, catering to modern consumers’ demand for convenience without compromising quality.

How to Formulate a Hydration Beverage Stick Pack – Key Ingredients

As the hydration category expands, brands must navigate various considerations, including ingredient selection, cost, and customer preferences. Understanding these dynamics and aligning product formulations accordingly are crucial for success in the competitive and evolving hydration market.

Firstly, there are a number of key ingredient categories to consider before formulating a successful powdered stick pack.

Even with high-intensity sweeteners on the rise in stick packs, sugar still has a stronghold. Case in point, the popular water-hydration brand, Liquid Death recently introduced a new stick pack product category – Death Dust. It is a line of flavored powder mixes fortified with electrolytes and vitamins. However, it does contain 35 calories per stick. So, this is something to remember if trying to avoid calories.

Compared to Liquid Death’s Death Dust, competing brand Liquid IV does not use sugar, rather opting for an amino acid allulose blend. Since the FDA excludes allulose as an added sugar on the Nutrition Facts panel, it has helped allulose gain more recognition in the last few years for brands and consumers seeking that “zero sugar” claim without sacrificing taste. Allulose is about 62% as sweet as sugar, meanwhile the rest of the sweetness comes from stevia leaf extract, a natural high-intensity sweetener.

PRIME is an example of a hydration brand that claims zero added sugar and instead, uses artificial high-intensity sweeteners like sucralose and acesulfame potassium — commonly formulated together due to their synergistic properties. Still, those formulations give many consumers pause, as they are looking for natural ingredients like the natural stevia extract found in True Citrus’ lemonade and limeade stick packs. Their product is sweetened with natural stevia extract and a small amount of cane sugar. Although it has ten calories per pack, it is still a more natural and healthier option.

Erythritol and allulose, usually considered sweeteners, can also help with bulking where needed due to being about 62-70% as sweet as sugar. Maltodextrin is another common bulking ingredient, but more so in stand-alone sweetener packs and not in drink mixes.

There are so many flavors that the list is endless. Yet, stevia is usually combined with citrus flavors, as seen in Liquid IV and True Citrus. Classic flavors include strawberry, watermelon, blue raspberry, and fruit punch. However, there has been a rise in the popularity of more attractive and tropical fruit flavors like passionfruit, mango, white peach, lychee, pineapple, and coconut, to name a few.

Common functional ingredients found in stick packs are vitamins and electrolytes. Occasionally, caffeine is seen for energy boost claims along with vitamin B. Other functional ingredients that are gaining popularity are probiotics, fiber, and antioxidants. While functional ingredients can provide many benefits in a stick pack, formulators will need to specifically look out for any ingredients that contribute their own specific taste such as bitterness, off-notes, or aftertaste. You may need to add masking agents or other flavor modifiers to combat the undesirable natural flavors that some of these ingredients can create.

How to Formulate a Hydration Beverage Stick Pack – Key Considerations

Zero-sugar may look appealing on the label, but it is not an easily achievable claim. In swapping out the sugar, there are many components we must look at. Would you use artificial or natural sweeteners? Would you want zero sugar or zero added sugar? Would you want to use sugar alcohols? If substituting with stevia extract, you may consider adding a bulking agent to provide more upfront sweetness and viscosity. If replacing a large amount of sugar, you may consider using different stevia glycosides stacked on top of each other to achieve a more synergistic sweetness.

Source: Innova Market Insights, 2023

When it comes to solubility of powders in a hydration beverage, formulators must consider the dispersibility as well as solubility. Many fruit flavors and powders or functional ingredients are soluble in water, provided they are pure of any insoluble materials. The dispersibility here is key in making sure that the powders can evenly distribute once in solution. Certain functional ingredients and stevia rebaudiosides have low solubility so stacking different rebaudiosides below their solubility threshold point may be a consideration. If you notice that your powders are forming clumps or stay only on the surface, then you may want to look at partial agglomeration, premixing, or adding other excipients to help with the dispersion.

A stick pack already helps reduce overall cost-in-use, as opposed to a bottled hydration beverage which add costs for the liquid and packaging. Investing in the right quality ingredients for your stick pack is important to stand out in an already saturated market. For example, when replacing sugar with stevia extract, this not only helps reduce the calorie count, but since stevia is 200-450 times sweeter than sugar, cost savings can be reduced by 40-70%. There are many different grades of purities for stevia extract, so if there are no other sweeteners in the product, it is best to invest in a higher quality purity to formulate a better tasting product.

When consumers are selecting the right hydration product for their needs, some of the ingredients they will be wary of are artificial sweeteners, synthetic food additives or preservatives, and excess sugar. Formulators should try to aim for using the natural version of these products. A good example is citric acid, which is commonly used in hydration drinks for flavoring and for its preservative functions. While the natural form provides attractive health benefits to health-conscious consumers, manufactured citric acid (MCA) does not provide the same benefits and can be associated with gastric issues in sensitive individuals. When it comes to natural vs. bio-converted stevia, natural stevia leaf extract has been proven to be 100% safe and provides numerous health benefits such as lowering blood sugar and cholesterol over time.

Be a Part of the Hydration Migration

The emergence of stick packs and tablets in the hydration category represents a dynamic evolution driven by consumer demand for convenience, functionality, sustainability, and “better-for you” options. As brands continue to innovate and expand their offerings, the future of hydration beverages shows no signs of slowing, catering to diverse lifestyles and preferences while promoting overall health and wellness.

From the early days of the hydration trend to where it has evolved today, our team of seasoned formulation experts at Howtian LLC has been continuously partnering with manufacturing customers to innovate and reinvigorate their product formulations. With a unique combination of experience in sugar reduction and functional ingredients, Howtian LLC is your “Prime” partner to create your next hydration product. Get in touch with one of our specialists to get started today.