Mike Johnson and Koray Benson launched Virginia-based Role Iced Tea in late 2016. It’s been a successful line of functional teas thus far, sold at online and in stores in the US and packed full of healthy ingredients like matcha, turmeric and ginger.
Breaking up with cane
After observing an evolving industry and listening to customer feedback, Role Tea made a major brand decision to eliminate all added sugars from its drinks.
It wasn’t a change Johnson and Benson saw coming--they even agreed that they both disliked the ‘harsh aftertaste’ of drinks made with non-nutritive sweeteners.
“Ironically, we vowed … in 2016 just days after launching that we'd never rely on sweeteners like stevia in Role Tea,” Johnson told BeverageDaily.
But the alternative sweetener market is growing fast and constantly introducing new options. They decided to experiment with blends of erythritol, grades of stevia and monk fruit for a new twist on their teas, and found they liked the results.
Role Tea’s flavors in lemon, mango and peach were previously sweetened with between 11g and 19g of added sugar. It also sells an unsweetened apple flavor which never included added sugar. Moving forward all flavors will have about 2g of total sugar per bottle from 100% juice concentrates.
Role Iced Tea - Lemon
- Ingredients: Decaffeinated Green & Black Tea Blend, 100% Lemon Juice, Wellness Root & Spice Blend (Turmeric, Curcumin, Black Pepper), sweetened with Non-GMO erythritol & stevia leaf extract
- Serving Size: 1 bottle (12 fl oz)
- Calories: 15
- Total Sugars: 1g
- Cholesterol: 0mg
- Sodium: 5mg
- Total Carbohydrate: 11g
Responding to industry cues
After settling on a new recipe using erythritol and stevia leaf extract, Role Tea had to work fast to develop new branding and labels for the tea in time for their launch in Wegmans, Hy-Vee and Hometown Pharmacy stores across the country this month.
“The feedback we got when we tested the no added sugar versions against our sugar based versions as well as competitive brands made the decision an easy one," said Johnson.
"We knew these accounts were too important to not launch with the no added sugar versions from day one.”
A recent shift in the beverage industry has consumers responding to ‘better-for-you’ products and ingredients that feature ‘clean labels’ with low calorie counts and less added sugar. Functional drinks using matcha, ginger and turmeric have also gained mainstream popularity.
The 2017 Google Beverage Trends Report revealed that ginger was the top searched earthy flavor last year with matcha as a close second. Consumers value the antioxidant benefits and anti-inflammatory properties that come from incorporating these powerful spices into their diets.
“Even in the short time we've been on the market, we've noticed consumers have become even more sugar conscious," said Johnson. "Our consumers specifically are concerned with inflammation so even modest amounts of sugar are less than ideal for them,”
Role Tea has also recently introduced a Wellness Partner Program that “enables independent grocery stores, food service establishments and independent wellness professionals to purchase Role Tea at wholesale prices and re-sell directly to their customers,” according to Johnson. It’s an effort to fill distribution gaps in markets where they don't have a strong retail presence.
The teas are sold online and in more than 150 US retail locations, including Whole Foods.