The refreshing taste of Gravity

Wednesday, July 12th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

I'm pretty sure that Gatorade sold the first guess-my-taste beverage I ever saw. The plastic jug was filled with the aqua, un-food color of my all-fabric liquid bleach. And the name - Glacier Freeze - offered exactly no clue about what the stuff tasted like.

I remember asking myself how goofy the Gatorade folks must think consumers are. Why would anyone pay cash money for a drink without even a tiny idea what it tasted like?

Then I noticed Glacier Freeze had friends, a whole line of "Frost" flavors with funky names that all gave me the same zero hint about the taste. I shook my head and moved on.

This, of course, is why I am not rich and Mr. Ade and his minions (Quaker Oats moguls, actually) surely drive big, fast, expensive cars. Because today's average store beverage shelf is, if not covered, then heavily scattered with bottles of stuff carrying odd names that offer no sense of what they might taste like.

Power, Wisdom, Drive, Lizard Blizzard, Think Drink . . . the list goes on.

Elsewhere on the shelves, drinks have solid, informative names. Somewhere in the world there is a cola nut. Root beer owes its name to an actual root. Grape soda, ginger ale and orangeade all tell me what they taste like (even if no actual grape, ginger or orange were injured in the production of the beverage).

But Gravity? Is this what you drink if you wake up lightheaded? Is Earth for people who ate dirt as kids? And the name of Red Bull reminds me of a great sight gag involving a goblet of horse sweat in the movie A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

Not that these are the first drinks to sell with content-free names. What's a Sprite? The company has spent a lot of money to tout the lemon-lime flavor. Other sodas like 7-Up and Dr Pepper ("so misunderstood") have required huge ad campaigns to explain what the heck they might be.

Most of these new-generation drinks come in really pretty bottles with artistic labels. Most of the labels proudly proclaim the herbs inside. Taurine, astragalus, yerba mate, gingko-myselium, gotu kola.

Mmmm, boy. Sure sounds tasty!

Here's how the director of marketing for South Beach Beverage Co. explains his SoBe drinks - sorry, products:

"We think the personality of our product is most appealing, versus the actual flavor of the thing. I think everyone has been flavored out," says Billy Bishop.

Here was my error: I thought I was looking at drinks. When I asked the folks who make them what they were, I got my explanation: These are really "healthy refreshment platforms" or "taste profiles" or even "scientific art." Customers don't want to know what they taste like.

"We call ourselves a discovery brand," says SoBe vice president Howard Wishner.

I discovered that, at 45, I'm not exactly in the core demographic for these drinks.

Complete indifference to supposedly healthy herbs is another serious cultural lack.

"Younger people, 'tweenagers' and teenagers, want anything and everything that's new and different," says Andy Horrow, marketing manager for Gatorade.

Well, duh.

In my local store, I found four brands that include mystery flavor beverage lines: Gatorade, SoBe, Snapple and Odwalla.

I compared them all to the world's most common elixir of choice: Coca-Cola classic, with 27 grams of sweetener in every 8 ounces - that's a little more than two tablespoons of sugar.

All the SoBes I tried (Lizard Fuel, Lizard Blizzard, Wisdom, Drive and Power) and all of the Snapples (Sun, Rain, Earth, Fire, Gravity and Meteor) had more sweets than a Coke. At 20 ounces of drink per bottle, that's chugging five tablespoons of sugar if you drink the whole thing. The Odwallas (Think Drink, Mo' Beta and Femme Vitale) had plenty of carbs, but their sugars were all from fruit juice or fruit puree. The bottles are smaller, too - only 15 ounces. The Gatorades (Riptide Rush, Alpine Snow and Glacier Freeze) all have about half the sweetener of a Coke and come in several sizes.

"Sugar is the currency of life," says SoBe's founder, John Bello. "So by definition sugar isn't that bad."

Right. Positively health food. And what about all the wonderful herbs? If you put in enough to have therapeutic effects, aren't you worried that they might interfere with actual medications?

"We're very cautious. We're very responsible," Mr. Bello says.

SoBe puts in about 25 percent as much herb as you'd get in one capsule of a supplement from a health food store. At that level, you can't taste them. And imagine how much "currency of life" you've got to swallow to get a significant amount of herbs.

So how do they all taste? The SoBes and Snapples all had the teeth-jarring sweetness of "Bug Juice" served at every meal at summer camp - plus gentle overtones of other hard-to-identify flavors.

The Gatorades all tasted pretty much like Gatorade.

"They taste really good when you're hot and sweaty, and when you aren't, they don't have the same palatability," Mr. Harrow explains.

The reason the Frost line doesn't have obvious flavor names is that each of these is made with a cocktail of multiple flavors, he adds.

The Odwallas were all thick and fruity. If they aren't healthy, they taste like they should be. Taste aside, the texture was hard to get used to.

Would I ever buy another Red Bull for the off-citrus taste? Not on your life. But the caffeine-plus-whatever jolt made me want to yell "Clear!" and try to restart someone's heart with the can.

I performed a scientific survey to see what others might think. (Actually, my wife used some of her friends and co-workers and their kids as test subjects.) The adults were mostly not impressed with the sweet drinks:

• Tasted like a melted down, cheap-tasting lollipop.

• Smells kind of medicine-y.

• Cough medicine.

• Something the ice melted in.

• Smells like a broken vitamin capsule.

My teen tasters were more enthusiastic. "Sweet" was a compliment from this panel:

• Zingy.

• Like a Popsicle.

• Like melted Starbursts.

• Sweet berries.

And the kids each found at least one bottle they'd be willing to try again.

Me, I'll stick with what I know. Gimme a Coke.

These are really 'healthy refreshment platforms' or 'taste profiles' or even 'scientific art.' Customers don't want to know what they taste like.