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    Aseptics trend in China: Flavored mineral water

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    Mineral water is the perfect thirst quencher: It’s refreshing, non-alcoholic and has zero calories. Nevertheless, some consumers find that it’s missing something: flavor! No wonder, then, that flavored mineral water is one of the hottest beverage trends in China right now. Ensuring that the taste survives all the way to the consumer requires an especially gentle production process – like the one provided by Krones aseptic systems.

    Zero calories, no sugar and no fat: The trend in China is clearly toward healthier, low-calorie beverage alternatives from the "better-for-you“ (BFY) segment. With growing awareness comes growing demand for mineral water that provides the same bubbly sensation of a soft drink without all the calories, says the market research firm Mintel. It also helps, they add, that mineral water offers valuable minerals and trace elements, thus contributing to a healthier lifestyle. Apart from the most familiar minerals, magnesium and calcium, this water also contains silicon, sodium and sulphates, which help the body regulate blood pressure and digestion.

    Carbonated water is more popular in China than ever before. In a report on the Chinese mineral water market, the Qianzhan Institute estimates that sales will increase by more than 100 percent from 2019 to 2025.

    The healthy niche

    As a result of this continuing trend, the Chinese market has seen the development of lightly flavored sparkling water in recent years, with zero or very little sugar and often with less carbonation than typical CSDs. The hint of flavor is usually provided by small amounts of real fruit juices – sometimes even with a bit of pulp included. If additional sweetening is added at all – in which case it’s usually very subtle – producers tend to use sugar alternatives like stevia or licorice. Added vitamins or caffeine are also popular and enhance the healthful or energy-boosting image of many brands. Flavored sparkling water is no longer a niche product but rather a trendy beverage.

    With these drinks, producers are addressing a market segment that has been underserved for a long time – something between still, neutral-tasting water and the highly carbonated, intensely flavored soft drinks that, by design, contain high concentrations of either sugar or artificial sweeteners. Erwin HächlShuo LiKrones’ head of aseptic sales for the China region

    The trend began in 2018 and was later fueled by increased health consciousness among consumers in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting surge in demand for healthier beverages. In next to no time, sparkling water was available in a dizzying array of creative flavors that inspire their predominantly younger target group to keep trying new varieties and drive the market’s growth. Despite the wide selection, classics like peach and grape are big favorites. Still, drink-makers are always exploring new ideas that include not only carbonation and juice (with or without pulp) but also milk, for even greater nutritional value.

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    Classic flavors are peach and grape – but there are many more varieties.

    Trend or fad: Ready for anything

    The diverse range of flavors and the profusion of brands now available in the segment show that the market is still growing and offers considerable potential. Some of that potential stems from the fact that the primary consumer group is willing to pay higher prices for the health benefits they expect to gain from flavored water.

    Low-sugar and sugar-free drinks such as tea-based mixes have long been featured on China’s retail shelves. These non-carbonated drinks are also sensitive beverages that likewise require aseptic processing. But many producers of these drinks will now need to expand their aseptic equipment if they want to join the flavored-mineral-water trend. That’s because sparkling beverages require a different type of filling than still ones. And most Chinese bottlers want to keep their options open and continue producing still beverages alongside the sparkling ones.

    Consumers, too, have high expectations: They want products that contain only natural ingredients, such as real fruit with valuable vitamins intact. Chemical methods or excessively high temperatures are not options for preserving them. And that’s where Krones aseptic processing comes in.

    Still or sparkling? Both, please! Krones delivers complete flexibility

    Aseptic systems from Krones – which are already well established in Europe for sparkling juice drinks – are able to achieve two things at once in this new application, extending the shelf life of sensitive beverages without any quality losses and giving producers complete flexibility to handle other beverages on the same lines at any time. No matter whether still or carbonated soft drinks, teas, juices or even milk – all the options are open.

    An integral part of any system handling flavored sparkling water is the Contiflow Mixer, of which more than 1,500 machines have been sold as of this writing. The Contiflow blends mineral water with various aromas and any add-ins like caffeine or vitamins. 

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    The Krones Contiflow gives mineral water its flavor and other potential additives.

    When it comes to setting up the aseptic lines, Krones can be flexible to meet the individual beverage producer’s needs. For instance, carbonation can be added either during the mixing process – that is, before thermal treatment – or after heat treatment, by an aseptic carbonator that injects sterile CO2 into the product after deaeration and pasteurization. When carbonation is added before pasteurization, only the pumps have to be adjusted – to the resulting higher internal pressure so that the carbonation does not escape the product upon heating. From an economic perspective, this is the recommended option for customers who will need a mixer anyway. However, bottlers who work with products that come pre-mixed – or who attach particular importance to removing other dissolved gases – may find it makes sense to add sterile CO2 after the product has been pasteurized and deaerated. Krones’ product experts are happy to advise customers about which option is best suited to their unique situation. 

    PFR valves also afford beverage producers the utmost in flexibility during filling: Flow velocity can be customized to each product individually, from still to extra-fizzy or foaming drinks. Infinitely adjustable filling speed means that it is easy to switch not only between different products but also from one bottle size or shape to another without a changeover. The PFR valve also offers advantages in terms of sustainability: It allows for greater tolerance in filling temperature while still preventing foaming – and a slightly higher filling temperature makes for significant savings on cooling energy.

    Gentle heating, maximum safety

    When it comes to the time and temperature involved in pasteurization, the key is to use as much as necessary and as little as possible. The UHT-Anlage VarioAsept system does just that, ensuring that the flavored sparkling water is shelf stable while remaining as natural and flavorful as possible, with valuable vitamins intact. As a prerequisite for this gentle, brief heating, the preforms or blown bottles must be properly sterilized prior to filling. Besides the long-established method of wet sterilization of bottles using peracetic acid, Krones has since 2010 offered another option: dry sterilization of preforms, using hydrogen peroxide (H2O2). This latter option eliminates the need for bottle-treatment process water, reduces the line’s footprint and makes possible the use of lightweighted designs.

    Container design: The first sip is with the eye

    Just as diverse as the flavors of these trendy beverages are the shapes and colors of their containers. The design of bottles – some of them truly artistic – is eye-catching and sets these new carbonated drinks apart from other drinks. It captures the spirit of the times and reflects the tastes of younger target groups like health-conscious Generation Z. Full-body sleeves, which are stylish and more expensive than other options, give the category upmarket appeal.

    But bottle design is about more than aesthetics. Functionality is at least as important, especially considering that flavored sparkling water contains carbonation in the range of 5 g/l CO2, which – at least from an engineering perspective – comes close to classic CSDs, whose bottles must be far more pressure-stable than those for still products. For this reason, many bottlers use standard CSD bottles. However, flavored sparkling waters do, in fact, contain less carbonation than CSDs and therefore exert less internal pressure, so a somewhat lighter bottle design would also work. Lighter-weight containers, in turn, make for lower operating costs.

    Here, too, beverage makers can rely on Krones’ consulting expertise: From the design idea to preform design right through to choosing the best material for each individual product, Krones’ regional bottle designers help to create the perfect bottle. In virtual tests, they can even predict how different conditions such as logistics and storage processes would affect bottles. That saves time, money and other resources.

    “In this category, design plays a huge role. It’s still a relatively new beverage type that will have to compete with established CSDs. At the same time, the market is growing rapidly and more and more new brands and varieties are being launched. Here, it’s essential that the bottle design grabs consumers’ attention,” explains plastics engineering specialist Bi-Jiang Wang. “A combination of fresh fruits and a Japanese-inspired art style seems to be the recipe for success right now.”

    Just how these colorful drinks from China with their many innovative taste combinations will evolve remains to be seen. But one thing seems certain: Their time in the spotlight is far from over, and we can look forward to many more creative flavor combinations. And who knows? Maybe one or the other new flavor idea will soon make an appearance elsewhere in the world.

    Example: A Krones aseptic line might look like this

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