"I've learned that on this issue if you want to change the game, you can't just work from the outside. You've got to get inside — you've got to find ways to change the food and beverage industry itself,” Obama said. “I'm proud to announce the national launch of a company designed not just to provide better products but to jumpstart a race to the top that will transform the entire food industry. It’s called PLEZi Nutrition.”
The greatest innovation for the future: lower sugar?
While food and beverage brands have made progress in reducing the amount of sugar and salt in their products, “businesses can and must move faster when it comes to our kid’s health and nutrition,” Obama said.
"There's one area that I believe we tend to overlook, where innovation is still in my estimation far too slow. It's an area that touches all our lives, ... and if we can get creative and make meaningful improvements in this area, then we just might be able to help unlock the fullest potential of the generations who come after us. And I am talking about what we eat and what we drink."
More precisely, brands need to reduce the amount of sugar in their food and beverage products and create more nutritious offerings, Obama explained. US children consume approximately 66 grams of sugar per day (53 pounds of added sugar per year), which is equivalent to a bathtub of sugar a year, according to the American Heart Association.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a limit of 25 grams (6 teaspoons) of added sugar per day for children two years and older and to avoid serving food and drinks with added sugar to children under the age of two. Similarly, a recent BMJ review also recommended limiting added sugar intake to 25 grams to avoid 45 negative health outcomes.
The need for no-added sugar and nutritional beverages for children was a main reason for PLEZi 's creation, which aims to create a higher standard for kids and adults through products that deliver on nutrition, lower sugar, and taste, PLEZi CEO Leah Dunmore told FoodNavigator-USA.
“We're trying to raise the bar for really how we make and market food and drinks for our kids, and we're hoping that it'll influence the whole industry," Dunmore said. There aren't enough options out there that are convenient, tasty, and healthy for children, she added.
Delivering on lower sweetness, training palates
Introducing children to lower sugar products earlier in their lives can influence how they approach these products even as an adult, Obama explained. "We want PLEZi to help ween kids off of their reliance on sugar, and a big part of doing that is helping to gradually adjust their palates to crave less sweetness overall," she added.
PLEZi "lowered the sweetness level to a point where [kids] still like it, but it's not quite as sugary" by leveraging monk fruit or “a little bit of stevia,” Dunmore said. “Our first product is an amazing tasting beverage. It's got 75% less sugar than the average 100% juice drink,” she added.
Beyond getting the sweetness level just right, the PLEZi beverages are currently available in four flavors, including Tropical Punch, Orange Smash, Sour Apply, and Blueberry Blast, and provide other nutritional aspects, including 2g of fiber and 100 mg of potassium per serving, she said.
"We've learned that innovation without great taste is meaningless. If we really want kids to stop choosing soda and sugary drinks, and that might be the most important thing about PLEZi because if we do all this innovation without making it taste good ... kids will just keep choosing soda and sugary drinks because they simply like them more," Obama said.
Educating parents on childhood nutrition
PLEZi is also using its brands to raise awareness on childhood and adult nutrition, Dunmore said. “We talked to over 6,000 moms to really understand what they were looking for, and it came through loud and clear that they really are looking for convenient options that are healthy for their kids,” she added.
“[PLEZi] is really here to help raise a healthier generation of kids and also partner with parents to help them through the challenges of parenthood with knowing how to actually raise healthy kids and how to influence them so that when they become adults they're making better decisions.”
PLEZi will be allocating a portion of its marketing budget to educate consumers on nutrition, Dunmore said. PLEZi beverages feature a QR code where consumers can learn more about the ingredients in the beverage and how they address nutritional needs.
Additionally, 10% of PLEZi profits will go "right back into the broader movement to promote children's health," Obama said. PLEZi has already made "an initial donation of $1 million to Food Corps Nourishing Futures Initiatives," which is "working to ensure that all 50 million students across the country have access to nutrition education and free school meals by the year 2030," Obama said.
Challenging the industry to do better
The company is also looking to expand into the snack category in the future, Dunmore said. “We want to be a very accessible brand, so we're partnering with retailers that have national retail presence,” she added.
PLEZi is currently available at Target, Sprouts, and online through Walmart, and the brand wants “to keep growing these kinds of collaborations, so that healthier choices aren't only available at organic markets but at corner stores in schools, in stadiums, [and] in vending machines,” Obama said. “We want PLEZi to be everywhere your family goes,” she added.
PLEZi is also encouraging other food and beverage companies to innovate healthier, better-for-you products for children, Obama said.
“I'm here because I know that we can do better by our kids. I know that parents should have better options that all of us — government nonprofits, advocates, doctors, parents, and yes, businesses — have to lead the way if we want to raise a healthier generation of kids. And since businesses haven't been rising to the call and innovating fast enough, PLEZi is going to do its best to push them forward."