Review: Airforce Nutrisoda Flex (Black Cherry & Apple)

During a visit to last summer’s Taste of Chicago food festival, I ran across an exhibit tent for Airforce Nutrisoda, which of course was offering free samples. They are part of a newer breed of beverages that pack nutrients inside, while offering other proclaimed benefits (Diet Coke Plus tried to muscle into this trend). In other words, the Ardea Beverage Company is going for the “healthy soda” angle. Up first in our tasting is Airforce Nutrisoda Flex, which has a black cherry and apple flavor.

Airforce Nutrisoda Flex (Black Cherry & Apple)

As the story goes, the creator — Joe Heron — launched this collection of drinks in 2003 after being inspired on an airplane. At the time, he was working for Novartis Medical Nutrition, resulting in many long-distance aerial trips. During one of these trips, he sat next to a guy with a severe cold, and thus was inspired to create an “immune boosting beverage to protect passengers on crowded planes” (hence the “Airforce” in the title). Today, however, they are marketed beyond that core audience to provide a variety of wellness attributes.

Airforce Nutrisoda Flex (Black Cherry & Apple)

List of Airforce Nutrisoda flavors and attributes

Rather than play off flavors, the wellness benefits are highlighted. For example, besides Flex, other versions include Immune, Radiant, Slender, Focus, Calm, Engergize, and Renew. In our specific situation, the Flex flavor is designed to “help lubricate active joints and facilitate movement and flexibility.” It does this with a bunch of gobbly-gook that is easier to just quote the official website than explain:

With 600mg of Glucosamine, and 300mg of Chondroitin and the amino acids L-Lysine and L-Proline to support soft tissue repair coupled with Vitamins B6 & B12, and minerals Magnesium and Zinc for cell repair and growth plus Ginseng for an added energy boost, airforce Nutrisoda Flex is a delicious solution for enhanced movement and flexibility.

Each of the flavors have a different healthy attribute. At the same time, you’ll find most of the drinks in the line contain lots of “zeros”: 0 calories, 0 carbs, 0 sugar, 0 fat, and 0 aspartame. I believe the primary sweetener is sucralose, which is also known as Splenda commercially. My can of Flex has 5 calories, but not much else.

In the past few years, there has been an intentional move to reposition the product line away from the “dietary supplement” angle and more towards casual, healthy eating.

Airforce Nutrisoda Flex (Black Cherry & Apple)

Compare this older product grid…

Airforce Nutrisoda Flex (Black Cherry & Apple)

… with a grid featuring the reformulated drinks

This has been done by changing the formulations of some of the drinks, removing some herbs while keeping vitamins, minerals, etc. The Airforce Nutrisoda line is also heavily being marketed as a great solution for diabetics. In fact, during my experience at the Taste of Chicago, there was a lot of literature provided to support this angle.

Airforce Nutrisoda Flex (Black Cherry & Apple)

Note the marketing to diabetics

As for the product itself, it’s packaged very similar in look to that of an energy drink like Red Bull. Small cans, 8.4 oz, sold in different combinations at stores. 2-packs, 4-packs, assorted 12-packs. My can of Flex had some interesting ingredients, including “elderberry and chokeberry juice color”, “ginseng extract”, and “carrot and pumpkin juice color”. The drink itself was rather clear, much like a 7Up or Sprite. They were obviously going for a “clean, healthy” look here.

Airforce Nutrisoda Flex (Black Cherry & Apple)

As for the taste? Well, it’s obvious this isn’t a traditional soda. It’s also obvious that it has sucralose as a sweetener, because it had “diet drink” written all over it. That said, it wasn’t too bad. I was able to try a variety of other flavors at the Taste of Chicago; Flex was one of the better ones. There was a certain “bubbly-ness” to the experience, yet the black cherry also provided a little kick that was unexpected. Think of it along the vague flavor lines of a Cherry 7Up, maybe closer to 7Up Plus: Cherry.

Airforce Nutrisoda Flex (Black Cherry & Apple)

It’s Oscar, the Good Soda pup!

Overall, not a bad drink experience. I think the angle that this product has is very unique and could work in the marketplace with enough marketing power. The company got a little of that in 2006 when PepsiAmericas, which is the 2nd largest bottler for PepsiCo, purchased the owner of Airforce Nutrisoda, creating an opportunity to push this product into many more markets. Since then, I’ve seen the Nutrisoda branding increase, especially in the areas of sponsorships and general visibility. Whether it becomes a breakthrough like VitaminWater or the like is anyone’s guess at this point.

For those interested, here is the press release regarding the purchase of Ardea Beverage Company by PepsiAmericas:

PepsiAmericas Buys Ardea Beverage Co.
Functional beverage line provides portfolio expansion

MINNEAPOLIS – Jan. 23, 2006 – PepsiAmericas, Inc. (NYSE: PAS) announced today it has purchased Ardea Beverage Co., maker of airforce Nutrisoda. PepsiAmericas will collaborate with Pepsi-Cola North America to market airforce Nutrisoda in select PepsiAmericas markets with the possibility for future expansion.

Ardea, based in Hopkins, Minn., sells a portfolio of nutritionally enhanced, low calorie, carbonated beverages. The slender eight-ounce cans of airforce Nutrisoda are sold in a wide range of distribution outlets catering to on-the-go consumers.

“The Nutrisoda brand complements our growing portfolio of healthier beverages, providing a unique and fashionable beverage alternative,” said Robert C. Pohlad, chairman and chief executive officer of PepsiAmericas. “Nutrisoda has tremendous potential in the fast-growing functional beverage category, and it supports our strategy to bring customers relevant and exciting products that fit consumers’ lifestyles.”

Nutrisoda, which launched in 2003, targets on-the-go consumers who are nutritionally aware. Each of the seven products within the portfolio contains vitamins and minerals formulated to achieve a specific benefit. The products have few or no carbs, sugar, sodium or calories, appealing to health-conscious consumers. Brand offerings include Immune in tangerine and lime flavor, Radiant in pomegranate and black berry, Calm in wild berry and citron, Focus in mango and peach, Flex in black cherry and apple, Energize in mandarin and mint, and Slender in pink grapefruit and guava.

While small, the airforce Nutrisoda brand is resonating with consumers.

“More than 20 million U.S. consumers describe themselves as physically active and nutritionally aware,” said Joe Heron, founder of Ardea and the airforce Nutrisoda brand. “They want to look and feel their best. Whether the goal is to energize or to boost immune systems, Nutrisoda provides intelligent solutions.

“We knew we had the right product, but access to a strong selling system was critical to the long-term success of Nutrisoda,” explained Heron. “With PepsiAmericas’ strong customer relationships, infrastructure, and quality of management, we are excited about the possibilities for Nutrisoda.”

Ardea will become a wholly owned subsidiary of PepsiAmericas. Terms of the transaction were not disclosed.