Enhanced water bubbles up on menus

Today’s college students are too young to remember a time when selling bottles of water—something free and on tap virtually everywhere—seemed crazy. Yet, in today’s market, standard bottled water is becoming just a drop in the bucket of a multi-billion-dollar market that includes carbonated, fruit-flavored nutrient-enhanced water and more.

enhanced water

Take a look at the surge in U.S. bottled water sales from Euromonitor International:

  • U.S. sales of bottled water rose to $15.87 billion in 2015 and will likely stay at a strong current, reaching $20.4 billion by 2020.
  • Enhanced and functional bottled water will increase 31.5 percent from $2.19 billion in 2015 to a projected $2.88 billion by 2020.
  • Sales of carbonated water are also on the rise, projected to increase 27.5 percent to $1.1 billion in 2020, compared to $797 million in 2015.

The consumer demand for enhanced water extends to foodservice operations as well. Operators can tap into this trend by offering water with unique flavors, natural ingredients and other nutrient boosts.

A clear and transparent choice

When it comes to water consumption, Generation Z is among the thirstiest, according to recent research conducted for Beverage Marketing Corporation by Fluent Group, a Boston-based college marketing and insights agency.

Bottled water is the top beverage purchase among Gen Z college students, with 43 percent consuming it seven or more times per week. And all signs show that as strong as the current tide of water consumption is, the outlook is even stronger—Fluent Group’s research finds that 42 percent of surveyed Gen Z students plan to drink more in the future.

Sara Monnette, ‎vice president of consumer insights and innovation at Technomic, sees the thirst for water relating to trends that are important to college students. First and foremost, clean labeling, simplicity and ingredient transparency drive college students’ food-and-beverage buying decisions.

More than 40 percent read beverage labels on drinks regularly, with “all-natural” being the top descriptor influencing purchase decisions, according to Fluent Group. Half of students surveyed say they try to avoid artificial sweeteners, flavoring, preservatives, and high–fructose corn syrup. Low–calorie, organic, vitamin–enhanced and zero–calorie are also important label claims for water.

At the Culinary Institute of America’s (CIA) Hyde Park, N.Y., campus, sugary drinks were largely eliminated from campus dining during recent dining hall renovations to align with these trends.

“We thought there would be some backlash, but it was a non-event,” reports Waldy Malouf, senior director, CIA food and beverage operations.  “These students grew up hearing about rising obesity levels; they know soda is high in sugar. They can still get some sodas in a few vending machines, but we now provide filtered and cooled water on tap from Nordaq Fresh systems, which they can have still or carbonated.”

Clearly, water dominates the CIA campus and any enhancements come from natural sources. Students and diners at the on-campus restaurants prefer Latin-inspired aguas frescas, water flavored with fresh peaches, herbs or combinations such as basil-citrus for simple enhancements, says Malouf.

Dipping in the wellness well

A focus on better-for-you options is another trend driving students’ purchases, says Monette. Water alone is healthful, and Monnette notes that in terms of added functional attributes, immune-boosting ingredients are a top interest.

Active Gen Z students also consider sports drinks a part of healthier beverages. While 37 percent of Fluent Group respondents drink them for hydration and recovery, less sugary, nutrient-boosting waters can help meet demand for added hydration.

For instance, Datassential menu research finds that coconut water appears on only one percent of all non-alcoholic beverage menus, but it has shown significant growth (up 233 percent) since 2010. It’s also served at Panera, Starbucks and other national chains that college students know and love. “Hydration-plus is growing,” says Datassential researcher Jennifer Aranas.

She also says ingredients that convey better-for-you energy boosts from herbal sources, such as ginger, guarana, ginseng and B-vitamins, as well as organic sweeteners are more ways for operators to capture some of that hydration-plus appeal and keep water sales swelling.

This post is sponsored by Campbell's Foodservice