Coke quietly starts selling Sokenbicha blended tea in the U.S.

In all of the news articles about Sokenbicha, the latest beverage to enter the environmentally-conscious (and good for you, too!) market, there is a focus on its pronunciation: "SO-can-BEE-cha." The blended tea from Japan may not roll off the tongue, and it may be the among a rare few beverages to suggest its consumption is good for a healthy spleen, but there is something even more interesting about Sokenbicha: It's from Coca-Cola, though you can't tell that by looking at the product's label, its Facebook page, or its Twitter stream.

Sokenbicha also doesn't appear on Coca-Cola's new products page. The web site for the product refers to its corporate parent, Nexstep Beverages, LLC, which, as far as we can tell, has no web site of its own. It's a wholly-owned subsidiary of The Coca-Cola Company; it's just hard to discover that without some serious net sleuthing.

Sokenbicha itself seems a healthy and green-friendly departure from the fare that has gotten most Coke products banned from school vending machines and excoriated by celebrity TV chefs. The teas are "authentically brewed" in Japan with "natural botanicals," are unsweetened and are endorsed by Nihondo, Japan's "renowned wellness expert." The teas are planned to be exclusively distributed by Whole Foods at first -- they're in stores as of this week -- and Melanie Warner of Bnet calls the product's launch "a symbolic step in the right direction for Coke."

Unsweetened tea is a category that has big possibilities; but so far, Coca-Cola has seemed unable to resist putting sweetener in its alternative beverages. This product is, as Warner says, proof that the company "appears to have arrived at the realization that if it wants to generate growth in mature markets like the U.S., it's got to get off the reservation once in a while."

Speaking as a mother of children who never, ever need any more sweetener than they already get in their school lunches and occasional treats, and a person who's virtually eliminated sugar from her own diet: I'm thrilled to see big companies invest in unsweetened ready-to-drink beverages, even if it is behind a few corporate veils, with arm's-length distance through a unit known as "Venturing and Emerging Brands." (Sounds like: risky ideas and big gambles.)

It's a nod, too, to the very real possibility that government interests will start to follow New York's latest law suit, cracking down on the concept of spending federal dollars for highly-sweetened beverages without any nutritional value -- a.k.a. most of Coca-Cola's revenue. While companies surely have made good money selling things that are known to be terrible for you, it's hardly a great strategy to put all your eggs in that basket. And so, we bring in a tea from Japan, because here in America, we don't grow those silly unsweetened drinks.



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