While the rapid ascension of information accessibility and the subsequent increase in broader consumer awareness has largely been a net positive for the world, it has had unfortunate consequences for peddlers of products hopped up on sugar and synthetic ingredients. The health & wellness trend has become one of the dominant directions for the food and beverage industries in recent years, as consumers increasingly demand that brands be more transparent about their products’ ingredients and their provenance and that said products cater more towards a healthy lifestyle. That demand has led to a seismic industry shift as, across sectors, brands pivot towards health.

One of the sectors to perhaps benefit the most from the emergence of the trend has been tea. Instinctively aligned towards concepts of naturalism and drawing on a variety of ingredients with medicinal connotations, tea is already deeply rooted in many of the themes that have cumulated into the broader wellness trend. According to National Tea Day’s Modern Tea Trends 2019 report, 50% of surveyed tea brands saw the 24-35 year old segment as their biggest growing demographic. Shockingly, this is also the same demographic that is among the chief drivers of industry towards greater healthiness and sustainability.

Wellness takes the reins: specialty teas drive a thriving tea market

According to Statista, the global tea market was valued at $49.46bn in 2017 and is expected to reach a value of $73.13bn by 2024. Importantly, not only is the sector growing but it is rapidly diversifying and evolving as perceptions of tea shift into new venues and the consumer base transitions accordingly. Traditional tea and connotations of service around it still very much have their place (the above report highlights how much money is in the service of afternoon tea and the movement towards positioning tea as a premium product) but markets are opening up for producers that are willing to target younger consumers with new and different tastes.

Sky News reported in September of last year that 870 million fewer cups of tea had been drunk in the UK in 2017-18 compared to the previous year, with 2.6 million less kilograms bought in the year leading up to May 2018. Despite this, the value of tea has actually increased. In essence, at least in the UK, consumers are buying less tea but spending more on what they buy. While standard black tea sales are seeing a decline, herbal and fruit teas are gaining traction alongside other speciality and premium variations of black tea.

As Suranga Herath, CEO of English Tea Shop told us, “the tea industry is currently thriving. There were worries that coffee may be poised to usurp tea as the nation’s favourite, however the rise of increasingly health conscious consumers has given way to increased growth opportunities as speciality and wellness teas begin to take the reins. The value of the global tea market was $49.46bn in 2017 and this is expected to increase to $73.13bn by 2024, which shows how wide the market is continuing to grow at a healthy pace.”

Tea as a remedy: consumers demand health functionality

Within three years of launch, Suntory had managed to sell more than a billion bottles of their Suntory Green Tea Iyemon Tokucha; the drink utilises an approach that combines several consumer trends but has one standout feature: it is certified as a Food for Specified Health Uses (FOSHU) by Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare. Containing the ingredient quercetin glycoside, the drink’s formulation can supposedly help break down body fat and thus help consumers trying to lose weight. Given that obtaining FOSHU certification can take up to three years and cost up to $2m, there is a serious question of whether it will ultimately pay off for a brand.

Suntory’s success however, proves health functionality is at the forefront of consumers’ minds. Although there is obviously no guarantee of such success, and regulation can vary wildly from country to country, such cases serve to show well how consumer priorities and expectations are shifting. With surveys finding that, at least in America, the populations’ stress levels are generally increasing and that millennials in particular are consistently experiencing heightened levels of anxiety, it is perhaps no surprise that products that can offer health-based relief are on the rise. Wellness may not really be that new to tea but the increased consumer demand for products aligning to the trend has given the sector new license to expand rapidly.

Aneta Aslakhanova, global marketing director for Newby Teas, explained: “In some ways, wellness is integral to the tea industry. Tea as a ‘remedy’ is nothing new; thousands of years ago when the tea bush was first discovered, tea was brewed only for its medicinal properties. The tea plant has many health benefits that people have always known about, like a richness in anti-oxidants and rehydrating properties, but there seems to be a widespread push at the moment towards more ancient forms of wellness that people are more willing to ‘experiment’ with, and tea – including fruit, herbal, or floral infusions – has fit perfectly into that.”

Premium pleasure: tea’s trendy future

The wellness trend also intersects with another consumer macro-trend: premiumisation. Perhaps due to seeking comfort from the aforementioned stress, perhaps in response to weak promises of long-term financial gain, younger consumers are increasingly willing to spend more on short-term products. In particular, if these products can promise functionality that will improve consumer health, the industry is seeing an increased willingness to pay more.

“Very simply, if you are prepared to pay a little bit more for something comprised of the best ingredients, then you will get the maximum benefits from what you have bought,” Aslakhanova says. “In tea, this is crucial, as lower-grade or more inexpensive tea often contains higher levels of fluoride, which we have extensively investigated.

“Fluoride naturally occurs in the tea plant. It is beneficial in small doses, but in excess its consumption can lead to major problems in the bones and teeth. Some brands have cast facts like this aside and currently buy and sell poor quality tea because it keeps the price of their product down. It should not only be premium brands that offer a tea that can truly be constructive to wellness, but that’s what we’re seeing right now. “

Whether or not we’ll see wellness-focused teas shift away from premium offerings in the short-term is in question (although innovation in the ready-to-drink category could certainly lead that way), but it seems likely that such products will continue to play an important part in the sector. Moreover, the trend is likely to intersect well with growing interest in products drawing from other cultures particularly given the prominence tea has had in some of them. The health trend is very much here to stay and in forms both premium and novel, tea is well positioned to play a significant role for the future.

In the words of Maranda Barnes, co-founder and director of corporate communications and business development at TWG Tea, “tea has always been known for its wellness and healing properties, and I believe tea drinking is more than just a pleasant hedonistic experience. It is also a long-term investment for a healthier future.”