New developments in the science of creating authentic taste and aroma have led to the creation of tea in a ready-to-drink (RTD) form. These teas are pre-made, bottled and are served chilled to meet consumers’ desire for convenience. RTD teas also meet consumers’ health preferences because many meet clean label standards.
Clean label sounds like a good thing, but most consumers have no idea what it really means. According to the clean label movement, clean label is a consumer-driven movement, demanding a return to “real food” and transparency through authenticity. The food products should contain natural, familiar and simple ingredients that are easy to recognize, understand and pronounce with no artificial ingredients or synthetic chemicals. What does this mean for the food and beverage industry?
Manufacturers, beverage companies and the like need to be honest and straightforward with consumers about what is in their products, and equally as important, where their products are coming from. The key to appealing to this consumer-driven movement is selling natural and pure food and beverages. Innova market insights located in the Netherlands released its top 10 food and beverage trends for 2017 and the most important trend is “clean supreme.”
Health Benefits of Tea
Tea (Camilla sinensis) is second only to water as the most consumed beverage in the world with a per capita consumption of about 120 mL/day (half cup). This consumption is greater than coffee, beer, wine and soft drinks.  The main reasons tea is hugely popular worldwide is because of its great aroma, unique flavor characteristics, and its potential health benefits against cardiovascular diseases, hypertension, cell functions and certain types of cancer.
It is also a popular social drink in many countries. In the United States, tea has been seen in many retail products, ranging from bagged or loose leaf tea, powered tea, compressed tea and more recently, RTD tea and tea-infused beverages.
Currently, RTD tea has gained the most popularity, and is dominating the tea market, because of its convenience and clean health benefits from antioxidant polyphenolics, which are natural ingredients found in tea. While RTD tea is commonly sold in glass or plastic bottles, many companies have started selling it in steel or aluminum cans because of the manufacturing convenience and ease of recycle.
Unlike other countries in Asia and Europe, about 80 percent of tea consumed in the United States is served cold, which is one of the main reasons RTD tea is growing rapidly in the this country as compared to other countries. The other reason is consumer shifts toward healthy beverages. Specifically, the RTD tea market has grown to $1.5 billion with 10 percent or more annual growth since early 2000s. Needless to say, tea has superior health benefits, mostly from antioxidant polyphenolics, called catechins that are naturally present in tea.
Tea, especially green tea, has long been recognized as a significant source of catechins. There is also a special type of catechin that can only be found in tea. These are called as tea catechins, flavan 3-ols, or flavanols. These flavan-3-ol derivates include (+)-catechin (C), (–)-epicatechin (EC), (–)-epigallocatechin (EGC), (–)-epicatechin gallate (ECG), (–)-epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), and (–)-gallocatechin gallate (GCG) that contribute to both antioxidant capacity and organoleptic properties. Polyphenolics account for up to 30 percent of the dry weight of tea, of which up to 90 percent of those compounds are flavanols, which are attributed to the high biological activity of green tea and have a direct impact on antioxidant capacity. Studies have demonstrated that these compounds can help prevent cardiovascular disease and cancer, as well as pharmaceutical activities such as antihypertensive, antioxidative, anticarcinogenic, antiarteriosclerotic, hipocholesterolaemic and hypolipidemic properties. 
Clean Label Tea Production
There are three ways to add tea extracts and brewed tea to RTD tea bottles:
- Liquid tea extract is brewed at a facility and then concentrated before being added to the bottle along with other ingredients, such as flavors and acids. This is a better way to keep the flavor of tea because the liquid tea extract usually does not go through high- heat processing like the spray drying process. Better extractors are able to capture the aromatics of the brewing process and put that back into the concentrate.
- Powdered tea is extracted and then spray dried for a longer shelf life. These tea solids are then added to RTD tea with other ingredients. The downside to using powdered tea is that the tea’s beneficial compounds, such as catechins (the main antioxidants in tea) and natural tea aroma compounds are degraded during the spray drying process.
- Another method is to brew single strength tea at the RTD bottler, so it can be quickly incorporated into the beverage formulation. This tea is usually hot filled (no preservatives) and either not sweetened at all or minimally sweetened. Only a small amount of ascorbic acid or other organic acids are added to improve the storage stability without losing the initial taste quality.
Clean Label and Health Benefits of RTD Teas
How do clean label and health benefits come together? It is all about the ingredients.
The most basic RTD teas includes three ingredients, which are water, tea and ascorbic acid (or other acids as a preservative). On the other hand, many RTD teas can include around 20 ingredients, such as preservatives, acids, flavors, chelators, natural and artificial flavors and caramel color. Therefore, it is important to know the ingredients in RTD teas to determine if a product is truly clean label.
Clean label teas are made with tea that conveys all of the health benefits tea can provide, while non-clean label teas are more than likely made with caramel color (to mimic real tea’s color), tannic acid (to mimic real tea’s bitterness and astringency) and tea flavor (to have real tea flavor), which provides no health benefits to the consumer. If a consumer wants the full health benefits of tea, they should choose clean label teas over non-clean label teas because there is nothing to hide.
 Innova: Clean label tops 2017 food, beverage trends. Natural products insider. 2017. Available at https://www.naturalproductsinsider.com/blogs/food-beverage-perspectives/2016/11/innova-clean-label-tops-2017-food-beverage-trends.aspx
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