Apr 24, 2024 - Business

Coke, Pepsi, or organic blueberry? Eye-catching "better-for-you" sodas reignite the cola wars

Colorful rows of soda cans arranged in a geometric pattern.

United Sodas of America is a four-year-old soda brand with drinks in modern flavors and colorful cans. Photo courtesy of United Sodas of America

Move over, flavored seltzer: The cola wars are back as young consumers reach for pretty cans of soda in oddball flavors.

Why it matters: Startups are trying to disrupt the "big three" soda makers, which dominate the $110 billion market for soft drinks purchased in supermarkets and convenience stores.

Driving the news: There's been an explosion of new soda flavors and brands that seek to cater to Gen Z and Gen Alpha, who crave culinary novelty and intense flavors.

  • Some of the newer sodas — like Olipop, Poppi, Culture Pop, Vina, and Mayawell — make "functional" claims, usually related to gut health.
  • Others — like United Sodas of America and Zevia — describe themselves as "premium" and "better-for-you" because of their natural ingredients.
  • That cool packaging? Consumers want products they can pose with on Instagram and TikTok.

Meanwhile, the "big three" are punching back with new flavors, amping up the competition.

  • Coca-Cola introduced in March its first new permanent flavor in years, Spiced.
    • As a summer promo, it just dropped cherry-lime Sprite Chill and Sprite Chill Zero, available through July.
  • PepsiCo rolled out two limited-time flavors, Pepsi Peach and Pepsi Lime.
  • Keurig Dr Pepper unveiled Dr Pepper Creamy Coconut, available from May to July.

Where it stands: Lots of people ditched soft drinks for La Croix, White Claw, and other flavored seltzers (spiked and otherwise) — but now they're migrating back.

  • Why? "Taste, taste, and taste," says Daniel Herndon, president of United Sodas of America, a four-year-old Brooklyn-based company.
  • "There's folks that left soda completely because of sugar and went to those other options," Herndon tells Axios. "They want to come back to flavor, and they're starting to vote with their dollars."
  • United Sodas — which sells an irresistible suitcase of flavors like Cherry Pop, Strawberry Basil, and Pear Elderflower — contains 6 grams of cane sugar per can and 30-35 calories.

Ben Goodwin, CEO and co-founder of Olipop, says the "new wave" of sodas is "meant to reflect the full-flavor experience you get from drinking a traditional soda."

  • Olipop, introduced in 2018, says it created the "functional soda" category.
  • "We only have one health claim: It's good for digestive health," with nine grams of fiber per can, Goodwin tells Axios. "It turns out that fiber is a critically underserved nutrient."
    • The company also points to its trademarked "functional formula," OLISmart, which includes seven "unique botanicals, plant fibers, and prebiotics," like Jerusalem artichoke and kudzu root.
  • The company partnered with Purdue University to generate scientific data to support its claim.
  • Each can of Olipop has 35-50 calories. Flavors include Ginger Lemon, Tropical Punch, and Classic Root Beer.
Cans of Olipop soda, together with glasses full of soda and a soda being poured by a hand.
Olipop makes a health claim: That it supports digestive health. Image courtesy of Olipop

Yes, but: Much scientific shade has been thrown on the health claims of some of these beverages.

  • "Not to be confused with probiotics, which contain live microorganisms, these prebiotic beverages are infused with special plant fibers that feed the trillions of microorganisms that live in your gut," per the Washington Post.
  • Marion Nestle, an emeritus professor of nutrition at New York University and author of "Soda Politics," tells the Post: "If they're marketing them as having a major prebiotic effect, that's an exaggeration. The evidence behind it? Not so strong."

What they're saying: Some sodas promise to "improve my energy, immunity, or gut health," Yasmin Tayag writes in The Atlantic. Others claim "to stimulate mind states such as clarity, balance, or calm."

  • Navigating the beverage aisle has become an exercise in sensory overload, she concludes: "I just want a normal drink."

Between the lines: These innocent sodas are a different kettle of fish from the many THC-laced drinks that are coming on the market, which give you a gentle high.

🥤 My thought (taste?) bubble: If you're a Diet Coke addict like me, the soda alternatives aren't likely to convert you with flavor alone — nor with their low-calorie counts, which can add up if you drink as much as I do.

  • They're also more expensive than mainstream sodas.
  • But my Gen Z son and his friends — who used to call themselves the La Croix Boys, because they drank so much — adore them.

The bottom line: If you're looking for something really bizarre, a company called RocketFizz sells sodas in flavors like pickle, bacon, and pumpkin pie.

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