Wanted: More Hot-Fill Copackers

For companies operating in the healthy beverage space, how the product is processed can either support or undermine product claims.

Lance Leonard, CEO of True Drinks Inc., can attest to that. Tired of taking a beating on social media over the preservatives in AquaBall flavored water, Leonard recently announced the sales and distribution firm will transfer production and bottling of the children’s beverage to Niagara Bottling LLC, a leading private-label supplier of bottled water. Ontario, Calif.-based Niagara signed a contract to fill at least 3.2 million cases of AquaBall annually for five years. Production is expected to being in February at Niagara’s Dallas facility.

Up to 4 million cases a year have been cold-filled since January 2013 by three copackers in Modesto, Calif.; Palestine, Texas; and Scotia, N.Y. An extended search for a copacker with hot-fill capabilities ended with the selection of Niagara.

Cold filling necessitated the inclusion of three stabilizers and preservatives—potassium sorbate, sodium hexametaphosphate and malic acid—that inspired ridicule and condemnation from bloggers. “The millennials and Gen X consumers get so much more information, and they’re looking for better options,” says Leonard. “They’re happy to give you feedback,” both positive and negative.

“We always had a plan to remove those preservative,” he adds, but the moribund children’s drink market was over-ripe for an innovative product with zero calories. “We had to move quickly with a better-for-you product,” and cold fill facilitated quick market entry.

True Drinks pegs the children’s drink market at $1.2 billion, with pouches and Tetra Brik-like containers dominating retailers’ shelves. The company’s stackable, spherical PET containers offer a visual contrast, and images of licensed Disney and Marvel characters on the bottles are aimed squarely at children. A similar strategy was used by a kids’ drink with the tongue-in-cheek name Belly Wash several years ago. AquaBall, however, can’t be accused of being sugar water: the zero-calorie beverage is fortified with vitamins C, B3, B5, B6 and B12. Sweetness is imparted by Stevia.

Switching to hot fill meant reformulating the beverage and a new PET bottle that could withstand high temperatures without deflection. “Stevia is the best natural sweetener on the market, but you have to have the right formulation so that it isn’t bitter,” acknowledges Leonard.

The experience of True Drinks in the healthy-beverage segment is paralleled in solid foods, where a growing number of products undergo high pressure processing to get shelf life without preservatives.

Vertically integrated Niagara will blowmold the new AquaBall and supply caps, labels and other materials, as well as handle distribution. That will lower the product’s carbon footprint, Leonard points out, because materials no longer will be sourced from multiple vendors and shipped to three copack locations.

Niagara operates 19 factories, with plans to expand to 22 by mid-2016.