A lifetime soda drinker, Nat Noone was chugging 12 to 14 cans of Diet Coke a day.
He would regularly stop at a 7-Eleven convenience store on his commute to and from work to buy an 64-ounce Big Gulp — only to find the beverage didn’t leave him satisfied. He loved soda and he knew it, even if the specter of how the aspartame in the drinks he was consuming might be weighing on his health.
“There is something addictive about soda. I’d polish the (Big Gulp) and the second I’m done, I’m like, 'Where is my refill?' ” he said. “My wife was like, ‘You got to get out of soda,' and there was no happy place for me to land.”
One day, Noone was playing around at home with his SodaStream sparkling water maker when he added a splash of orange juice. He quickly realized the only thing missing needed to make it a healthier soda for him was caffeine. He added that, too.
Soon the 42-year old, who has been in the beverage industry since college after starting businesses in both juice and carbonated soft drink distribution, began his newest drink company called Wave Soda. It didn't take long before Noone was driving around San Diego, selling his soda creations to area retailers out of his newly branded Wave Soda 250 Ford Transit cargo van.
“When we first launched [Wave Soda], everyone is like, 'Don’t call it soda.' And for me, I started it for my soda addiction, it was, 'How do I get out of soda?' " Noone said. "So for me, I know it’s a polarizing word, but the way we're redefining it, or working to redefine it, is to make it this happy place again.”
The early success of Wave Soda attracted an undisclosed investment from AB InBev's venture capital arm ZX Ventures earlier this year, which helped the young upstart expand its distribution.
Today, the two-year old company sells its products in seven flavors at more than 1,500 stores, including H-E-B and Whole Foods. Fresh Market and Kroger’s Harris Teeter banner will start carrying the brand in November.
Noone's product — 85% sparkling water, 15% fruit juice and 42 milligrams of natural caffeine derived from green coffee beans — has unsurprisingly become a hit among young millennials and Gen Zers flocking to healthier products. They are responsible for more than half of Wave Soda's sales.
“We’re not trying to create a category," Noone said. The category, he continued, is already there, marked by sales declines in Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi.
"There is an audience that is left. I would never try to convince someone to leave soda, but if you made that decision, our whole thing is we’ve got this new home for you to land in,” he said.
“There is something additive about soda. I’d polish the (Big Gulp) and the second I’m done, I’m like, 'Where is my refill?' ”
CEO, Wave Soda
While Wave Soda has been quick to embrace "soda," others have distanced themselves from the stigma attached to the sugar-laden beverage that is routinely under attack for its negative effects on consumer health.
This spring, the American Heart Association released a study showing women older than 50 who drink two or more artificially sweetened beverages daily have an increased risk of heart attacks, strokes and death. In September, a study published in JAMA found drinking at least two 8-ounce glasses of soda a day is linked to increased risk of death. In recent years, other studies have linked soft drink consumption to stroke, dementia, Type 2 diabetes, obesity and metabolic syndrome.
In Chicago, Limitless expanded in 2018 beyond its coffee and tea roots into another caffeine-rich beverage. Instead of calling the product soda, the beverage is touted as a lightly caffeinated sparking water that has 35 milligrams of the stimulant for each 12-ounce can — the same amount as the beverage it is trying to replace.
“I purposely said we are not a soda. I want to stay as far away from soda as possible,” Matt Matros, co-founder of Limitless, told Food Dive. “You’re either full of sugar, which is what soda is, or you’re full of fake chemicals, which is what diet soda is. I don’t really think there is a way to do healthy soda.”
So far, the shift into sparkling water appears to be paying off for the nearly four-year-old company. As of September, Limitless had national distribution in places such as Walmart and Ahold Delhaize’s Giant banner. Sales are almost doubling every quarter, with 2019 revenue expected to be just short of $5 million.
A new definition of soda?
Andrew Henkel, senior vice president of brand growth solutions at SPINS, said while soda needs to "fundamentally change" to prevent a further shift to competing beverages from consumers, he was unsure just how far this change could go. Soda, for better or worse, is synonymous with sugar or high fructose corn syrup, he said, so any removal of the sweeteners risks the beverage losing its defining characteristic.
“The degree to which soda needs to change is so big that I don’t even know if you’d call it soda any more,” Henkel said.
Volume sales of carbonated soft drinks in the U.S. continue to slide. According to the Beverage Marketing Corporation, they are on pace for their 15th-straight year of declines in 2019, as more beverage choices overall and a push toward health and wellness eat into consumption.
However, the segment is still popular. In terms of volume, soda is the second-biggest beverage category in the U.S. The use of higher-margin small cans and new flavor innovations by beverage makers are projected to push dollar sales of carbonated soft drinks above $76 billion in 2019, the highest on record.
Gary Hemphill, managing director of research with the Beverage Marketing Corporation, told Food Dive that new, better-for-you sodas being introduced by upstart companies will carve out a presence on the market among consumers turning to healthier and premium-type products. Despite this success, these beverages will likely remain niche products, with the carbonated soft drinks category as a whole continuing to be dominated by the big brands, he said.
"Consumers are happy with the Cokes, Pepsis and Dr Peppers of the world. ... They like those brands. They like those products. They're just drinking fewer of them," Hemphill said. Soda's "still a big place, a big category and I think some of these companies ... see that and they see an opportunity in developing what they would maybe describe as a healthier soda."
Few companies are more proactive in shifting the beverage than the aptly named SodaStream. Last year, PepsiCo purchased the Israeli-based company for $3.2 billion as part of a broader effort to minimize its dependence on sugary drinks.
Not looking to poach soda drinkers
The popularity of SodaStream has spawned upstart companies like Soda Press, a New Zealand maker of certified organic soda, cocktail and mixer syrups.
Cameron Romeril, who founded Soda Press more than five years ago, said his goal is to create a new category in healthier soda. To do that, Soda Press’ syrups have 50% less sugar than soda, tout the presence of probiotics and specifically note on the label that the products don’t use stevia — instead achieving sweetness through a mix of real fruit ingredients, sugar and monkfruit.
“We’re not taking drinkers from traditional soda. They’re not interested and we’re not interested in talking to them either,” Romeril told Food Dive. “We originally thought that coming to the U.S. that people would just be wanting hard-core soda, but it’s amazing how many people don’t even drink soda and how many people are coming back into this subcategory we’re trying to create, which is healthier soda.”
Even as Soda Press focuses on that category, it soon found itself closer to the very soda companies that have made their mark with these shunned sugary offerings. PepsiCo’s SodaStream acquired 51% of the company in October 2018 for an undisclosed sum, giving the startup a chance to improve its balance sheet and focus on expanding the brand’s reach. SodaPress expects to be in about 2,500 U.S. stores in January.
PepsiCo found that consumers want healthier sodas and “that’s why they are kind of going down that road” with us and SodaStream, Romeril said.
“It’s a great train to be on, even if we’re a little caboose on the end” of a nearly $200 billion company, he said.
Few companies have been as far ahead of the healthier soda trend as Zevia, which has been in stores for more than a decade. Today, the beverage manufacturer makes a line of sodas that have a similar flavor profile to many of the drinks they are trying to replace — including Dr Zevia and a drink called Cola.
Olyvia Pronin, director of marketing at Zevia, said the Los Angeles-based company doesn't need to aggressively try to poach consumers from Big Soda.
"There are just people who are happy loyal customers, and they buy soda with calories and with everything, and we get it. They love the taste and they might be addicted to it," Pronin said. "We know that many of them switch consciously from soda to Zevia. It's great that there is competition, but we also think that there should be a healthier alternative in everything."