Earlier this year, Coca-Cola added a new ingredient to its signature vitaminwater drink: stevia leaf extract. (Stevia had already been part of its zero calorie vitaminwater line and will continue to be used in these diet drinks.)
But the change angered many devoted vitaminwater fans and, several months later, the company is backpedaling and returning to the original formula.
“[W]e tinkered with the taste of vitaminwater. and [sic] our fans haven’t had the greatest things to say about it. so [sic] we’re changing back to the taste you know and love,” read a statement on the website.
Despite the vitaminwater bungle, there is actually a devoted and growing consumer base for stevia-sweetened beverages in the United States. Business Insider spoke with Paddy Spence, CEO of Zevia, a zero calorie soda brand that is gaining traction in the US market.
In June, Zevia was ranked the #14 low/zero calorie soda in the US market, according to data compiled by IRI Consulting. This is no small feat given that Zevia is the only independent brand in the top 20 — all the others are owned by Coca-Cola, Pepsi, or the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group.
Zevia’s secret to success
Zevia’s success is somewhat counterintuitive.
As Spence explains, the diet soda category has “been on this steady and increasingly precipitous decline, because people are saying ‘I want the zero calorie benefits but I’m just not comfortable with how much I’m ingesting of aspartame and other artificial sweeteners.”
Millennials in particular have been eschewing the diet soda that their 55 and older parents grew up with and love. But consumers in the 18-34 year old age bracket actually make up the biggest chunk of Zevia’s business.
And, of course, there is the issue of stevia’s taste. For some consumers (like the vitaminwater fans mentioned above), stevia can have a bitter aftertaste.
It’s important to note that stevia in its raw form is not approved for use as a food additive by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). However, the FDA approved one of the naturally-occurring compounds found in stevia, Rebaudioside A (Reb-A), in 2008.
Spence says that’s why the Zevia team chose to mix stevia extract with two other natural components: monk fruit and erythritol. “What monk fruit allows us to do is enhance the sweetness of the product without any bitter aftertaste — the two really work synergistically,” he told Business Insider.
When asked to comment on the taste, Spence said: “Anything that provides functional benefit is an acquired taste.” By functional benefit he means that stevia is zero calories. Basically there is a trade-off: “people are looking for either a full calorie soda that is going to optimise taste or they’re looking for a zero-calorie product,” according to Spence.
His philosophy is that people who want to drink full calorie soda are going to continue to do so, but for those consumers who want to reduce the chemicals from artificial sweeteners that they put into their body, Zevia is a natural alternative (or, as natural as highly purified extracts of naturally-occurring plants can be).
And Spence still sees a lot of opportunity and desire for the product in the US market. The company just got their first stadium deal as the “zero calorie sponsor” of the Oakland A’s baseball team.
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