A taste of fruit, a splash of pizazz, and presto...

FRUIT-flavored fizzy water has set America's beverage industry a-bubble. Fruit sparklers, fruit spritzers, citrus soft drinks, fruit sodas, sparkling mineral water or seltzer with fruit essence - these are the new beverages on the block. And although some question their longevity, today these fizzes comprise the fastest-growing beverage ``category'' in the United States.

``We're calling them `New Age beverages,''' says Hellen Berry, vice president of marketing for the Beverage Marketing Corp. (BMC), which has just completed a report on the new drinks. They are generally ``all natural'' and therefore often perceived by consumers as being ``good for me,'' says Ms. Berry. The category breaks into three segments:

Sparkling flavored waters. These are generally carbonated water with natural essence added.

Sparkling juices. Sometimes called ``fruit spritzers'' or ``juice sparklers,'' they contain up to 70 percent fruit juice.

``All natural'' sodas. These side with sodas in sweetness, and may come in other flavors besides fruit.

Although such beverages are a small fraction of the beverage market, new-age beverages are the fastest-growing drinks, according to BMC. Whereas traditional soft drink sales are around $30 billion (wholesale) annually in the United States, new-age beverage sales are a comparatively small $600 million (wholesale).

In 1985, when the products first started to emerge in the US market, production was 33.5 million gallons for the year. By 1989 it had grown more than five-fold, to 176.1 million, says Ms. Berry.

Riding on the crest of the ``all natural'' and bottled-water crazes, brands make claims such as ``nothing artificial,'' ``no preservatives,'' ``made with natural spring water,'' ``no sugar added,'' ``no calories,'' ``sodium-free,'' and even ``organic.'' Packaging ranges from shapely bottles and fancy labels to aluminum cans and aseptic containers. Prices tend to be upscale, generally half again as much as soft drinks.

Perrier gets a lot of credit for pioneering the recent fruit-flavor-and-sparkling-water trend. ``Perrier was the first nationally distributed brand that came out with essence flavors,'' says Jan Lazgin, spokeswoman for the Perrier Group, which includes Poland Spring. After first introducing the three essence flavors - lime, lemon, and orange - in April 1985, sales virtually doubled in a year. In 1988, they introduced a Poland Spring 20 percent juice drink. ``We saw an increased use in juice and growing demand for natural products,'' explains Ms. Lazgin. ``That went one step further - even more of a step to soft drinks, but then again [it] had all the attributes of being all-natural.''

The concept, primarily an American one, is not new. Many people mix their own fizzy concoctions at home, points out William Brown, spokesman for New Era Beverage Co., which makes the No. 1 juice sparkler - Sundance juice sparkler. ``Even in Europe, you'd occasionally mix orange juice with seltzer or soda water,'' says Mr. Brown, who grew up there.

These ```new-wave' soft drinks are an old idea,'' argues Jesse Meyers, editor and publisher of Beverage Digest. Mr. Meyers sees many of these products going the way of the Pet Rock. Historically, ``juice added'' products have failed, he says, noting the defunct Napa Naturals line and the fact that Slice soft drinks no longer tout the fact that they contain ``10 percent fruit juice.'' With the possible exceptions of the flavored, bottled waters, such drinks will probably fade, he says.

``What the public is looking for are drinks that are cold, sweet, swiftly available, and image-enhancing,'' says Meyers, who has followed the industry for 30 years. If consumers want juice, they'll drink juice. If they want a soft drink, they'll drink a soft drink, he says.

Still, manufacturers and loyal fans say the time is ripe for a ``good for you'' soft drink that's not a fad. (The US Food and Drug Administration plans to issue a requirement that such beverages list the amount of juice content, according to an FDA spokesman.) Another plus is variety: Lemon, lime, orange, raspberry, strawberry, peach, black cherry, tangerine, boysenberry, kiwi, cranberry - the list goes on. ``That's one of reasons there is this phenomenal growth - because consumers are actually beginnin g to find there are variety options among beverages,'' says Brown. ``We've seen desire for greater variety in foods, and now very much so beverages,'' adds Mr. Brown.

INITIALLY, many manufacturers targeted the yuppie-gourmet crowd, and started on the West Coast. But the market turned out to be much broader, much to their surprise. Such is the case with Clearly Canadian, says spokesman Don Morrison. The company's clear soft drink is ``also popular among younger teenagers and older people and even ethnic people,'' he says.

Brown points out that his company found Sundance juice sparklers to be ``adult enough'' to capture young consumers. Many adults see them as acceptable alternatives to alcoholic beverages.

That's just fine with Jeffrey Hon, director of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc. ``We welcome any non-alcoholic beverage product that provides a socially acceptable alternative to drinking alcohol,'' he says - especially for pregnant women, people struggling with alcoholism, and young people.

In addition, parents are seeing some of the beverages as alternatives to some of the traditional, caffeinated soft drinks for their children. Kathy Potenza, a car-rental agent in Boston, says she adds water to cola when her 2 1/2-year-old daughter wants some. Although she says she hasn't tried many new-age beverages, ``anything to take her away from soda'' would be good, she says. ``Everywhere you turn, all you see are Coke machines,'' she adds.

``A lot of moms are conscious about what they give their kids,'' says Peggy Short, customer service representative for Knudsen & Sons Inc., makers of fruit juice spritzers (70 percent fruit juice, 30 percent sparkling water). They've even come out with ``organic'' fruit-juice spritzers.) ``To a kid not raised on Pepsi or Coke ..., they really think they are sodas; they're a treat.''

At a Boston grocery store, Bob Ward fills up his basket with juice-added Poland Spring. When questioned why, he responds ``Healthier. It's simple, not complicated.'' Mr. Ward, 48 and a runner for the past 10 years, says he's glad to know much of America still buys mainstream soft drinks, because ``then there wouldn't be any of this left!''

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