I just got off a call with an MBA student from Minnesota who had found me online via some things I’ve written about soda, health, and homemade alternative carbonated beverages. She wanted to interview me about attitudes in Seattle toward new soda products. It turned out she was doing a student project with a Minnesota-based “natural” soda company, and wanted to ask me questions about the Seattle scene for the purposes of marketing here. She was very nice, and she accepted my feedback gracefully.
Instead of advising her on how to promote her product, which I told her I was uncomfortable doing, I asked her a few questions. It turned out the product she’s working on has as much sugar in it as a standard soda, even if it uses cane sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup. I was polite but direct with her, and told her they should come back and try marketing in Seattle when they’ve created a product using no sweeteners or artificial sweeteners at all, and even limited juice. That there’s an untapped market of people who just don’t want to drink sugar. That non-sugary carbonated beverages actually can taste pretty good. (See my experiments with kaffir lime leaf soda and other flavors.)
And frankly, if you go into a Whole Foods or similar store, there are already plenty of way-too-sugary drinks infused with all-natural pomegranate-hemp-goji-açai essence (or, you know, other flavors) trying to trick the diet-craze-conscious but not necessarily informed consumer into slurping simple carbs. Even from a business perspective, health egregiousness aside, that market is over-saturated.
Fighting “Big Soda” is an obvious primary goal, since the larger beverage industry has lobbying/donor/marketing dollars in play, their products contain the worst of everything, and their products often target children and people with limited finances or access to healthy food. But what about Little Soda? One concern is that if more health-conscious consumers drink sweetwashed sodas, they may be less likely to get behind the idea that all liquid sugary drinks are unhealthy, and we might lose potential advocates and allies.
But sweetwashing isn’t just from small companies. Another — much bigger — concern is that many of the perceived smaller soda companies are actually owned by larger Big Soda type companies that make energy drinks and other sodas, the companies on whose behalf the American Beverage Association lobbies. These companies may see owning small brands as a way to expand their market and distract from their detrimental role in public health. Seen Izze Soda around your “natural foods” supermarket? It’s owned by Pepsi. (I wrote four years ago about how Naked Juice is owned by Pepsi.)* Hansen’s is owned by Monster.
There are really some small companies out there making products they genuinely want to be healthful and taste good. It seems unlikely but possible to convince some of the starting companies to counter the liquid sugar trend by coming up with truly unsweetened, low-carb, additive-free beverages. And if so, Little Soda might actually prove helpful. But I’m skeptical.
*With apologies, the above link may not work after June, as Apple throws out all the old MobileMe websites made with iWeb. Any web developers out there who want to help me rescue my several years of blog entries and their comments on that old site?
Credit to Judy for the Creative Commons photo.