Photos by Ashley Nickle/The Packer staff ( )

Consumers are making their way to the produce department to find beverages to serve a purpose — whether it’s to improve their health or just to enjoy.

Summer and fall seem to be the most popular for beverage sales, but they do sell 52 weeks per year, said Craig Carlson of Carlson Produce Consulting.

“Fall is typically the time of year people think of cider,” said Trish Taylor, account manager at Sparta, Mich.-based Riveridge Produce Marketing Inc. 

“We encourage retailers to have it set ahead of the actual start of fall. Those cool days that feel like fall in late summer can trigger people to think of apples and cider and begin movement of the product.”

Cider continues to be popular through Halloween and Thanksgiving, she said. Consumers are also using fresh pressed cider for their smoothies year-round. 

Functional beverages in the produce department are “growing rapidly,” Carlson said, at about 47% year over year.

“There’s a whole rising trend of consumers that are consuming food as medicine,” he said. “It’s actually a top trend.”

Across all demographic groups, functional beverages are gaining popularity, he said.

Food as medicine is what is driving the trend in the beverage industry, Carlson said.

Functional beverages can be used to help people recover from working out, can be used on a functional basis for heart health and gut health, and to help people feel better by lessening pain and being an anti-inflammatory.

“Heart health and gut health is becoming more and more important,” Carlson said. 

Riveridge’s audience is also broad, as many consumers grew up drinking cider  and are now using it as a base for fruit smoothies and other healthy foods, Taylor said.

“The reality of the marketplace is that the beverage category is exploding, and produce is just a part of that,” Carlson said.

Beverages are in the natural food space, the dairy department, the refrigerator sections and in the dry sections where they are put on grocery shelves, he said.

“Within the overall supermarket beverage category, all the sodas and carbonated beverages are flat to down,” Carlson said. “The functional beverages and waters are up about 10%. There’s a huge shift going on within the category.”

For example, cider is best positioned near apples and fall produce, but cider without preservatives needs to be refrigerated along with other fresh juices in the produce section, Taylor said. 

“Consumers have been programmed over the years to find cider in their produce section,” she said. “And it makes sense, as cider is 100% fresh pressed apples.” 

The dynamics of the beverage category are evolving, Carlson said. Sodas and other drinks are not being consumed at the rate they once were.

For beverages to be considered in the produce department, they should be low in sugar and low in calories, he said.

“As you rate different items (for the department), take the ones with the most functional benefits,” Carlson said. 

“The plant-based, functional category belongs in produce. The placement should be based on where the consumer is looking for the plant-based functional category.”

Social media, timely promotions, incremental displays, sampling and education events are ways companies can promote their beverage products, he said.