Drinks have already proved a popular carrier for functional ingredients, leading to a global market of around $7 billion (not including sports and energy drinks), according to Leatherhead Food.
But when it comes to heart health, much of the activity in the soft drinks sector has been "very limited and fragmented to date and the market remains generally far too small to quantify", said the consulting firm in its 'Heart Benefit Foods' report this year.
"Most of the products high in antioxidant vitamins, such as ACE drinks, tend to have a general health positioning, or to emphasise immune function, rather than heart health at all."
But a couple of start-up businesses are about to challenge the dairy and cereal makers' domination of heart health foods.
Pomegranate juice, first launched in the UK in early 2003, and hardly sold in its original fruit form, has risen rapidly to become one of the fastest-growing juices.
Most of these sales are coming from the Pomegreat brand, made by RJA Foods and endorsed by the cholesterol charity HEART UK. Before a product carries the charity's logo, its health properties must be assessed by independent scientific experts.
"Our sales have grown to around 500,000 litres per month from about 50,000 litres this time last year," Adam Pritchard, managing director of RJA Foods, told NutraIngredients.com.
This growth has been driven by a strong PR campaign that highlights the health properties of the fruit. Studies in Israel have shown that the fruit juice, taken daily, prevented the thickening of arteries and slowed down cholesterol oxidation by almost half.
Although the product makes no health claims, Pritchard said: "We're about to increase awareness of the partnership with Heart UK adding more detail on the product packaging."
Fruit juice is anyway seeing strong growth in the UK as consumers increasingly opt for natural foods.
Earlier this year Mintel said that sales of chilled, high quality and natural juice in the UK have increased by a staggering 60 per cent over the last two years, reaching a value of £768 million (€1.1bn).
But this 'naturally healthy' image may have been a barrier to the addition of new ingredients or a stronger nutraceutical positioning in the past.
However a new juice based on a bioactive tomato extract is about to enter the UK market with a much more aggressive health positioning than Pomegreat.
The functional food developer Provexis will launch its Sirco drink in January 2006 making the claim that it 'helps to maintain a healthy heart and benefits circulation'.
Earlier this week, company chairman Dawson Buck told shareholders that he was planning a much larger distribution base at launch after seeing a high level of interest from a number of the major UK supermarkets.
The market is also expecting Coca-Cola to introduce its sterol-enriched Minute Maid juice, already available in the US, onto European markets after initial approval from the UK's novel foods committee.
Sales of Heartwise cholesterol-lowering orange juice reached an estimated $20 million during its first year on the US market.
But firms entering this growing sector should perhaps learn from the proven success of Pomegreat.
Pritchard says the product, a blend of pomegranate juice, aronia berry juice and fruit extract, is selling well because of its good taste, above all.
"We have generated a lot of trials through the health benefits but people have made repeat purchases because of the taste. There's not many healthier fruits out there, but we have positioned the taste first, and health second," he said.
Nevertheless, the company is funding a trial at Hammersmith hospital on the juice's heart health benefits, and is also expecting results from a trial on its antioxidant status in January.
Leatherhead has forecast sales of heart health foods will rise nearly 60 per cent over the 2004-2009 period to reach nearly $5.7 billion by 2009.