Myko Bocek drinks a lot of Vitaminwater. “At least a few a week for the past 11 or 12 years,” estimates Bocek, who’s 44, lives in Phoenix, and loves the drink so much that she can tell stories about the first time she had it. “My family makes fun of me for being ‘addicted’ to Vitaminwater, but, I don’t know, to me it’s the same as being addicted to coffee or Coca-Cola.”
On Friday night, Bocek’s husband brought home a bottle of her favorite Vitaminwater, Energy: Tropical Citrus. “But when I drank it, it tasted off. I thought it was a bad batch or something,” Bocek says. She visited Vitaminwater’s Facebook page and discovered that the company had very quietly switched from a fructose-and-cane-sugar mix to a cane sugar-and-stevia combination that reduces the sugar content in its drinks. Vitaminwater, which is produced by the Coca-Cola’s Glacéau subsidiary, is calling this version “naturally sweetened” because stevia is a sweetener made from stevia leaf extract. The new version started entering the U.S. market this spring; the original recipe is being slowly phased out. And Vitaminwater is being flooded with complaints.
“I’m assuming the reason your products now taste like they have horse urine in them is the switch to stevia leaf extract,” a man named Zach Staley wrote on the drink’s Facebook page. A few commenters joked that this was Vitaminwater’s New Coke moment, while another, Jonas Crosby, just wrote “NOOOOOO!”
The anti-stevia conversation has completely dominated Vitaminwater’s Facebook page, all but eliminating the other contributions—people praising the brand or requesting that their local store carry more of a certain flavor—that Vitaminwater used to get. The confusion was best summed up by Steven Yarng, who wrote to Vitaminwater to ask, “You already have Vitaminwater Zero, why mess with the non-diet version?”
This switch comes as Vitaminwater faces a class action for allegedly deceptive advertising. This suit, which has been ongoing since 2009, was filed by Washington-based public advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) on behalf of a group of Vitaminwater customers who believe that the non-carbonated drink presented itself as being more healthy than it really was. In the original complaint, CSPI specifically called out Vitaminwater’s sugar content, which at 33 grams was almost as much as what’s found in a 12-ounce can of classic Coca-Cola. By adding stevia, Vitaminwater has lowered the drink’s sugar and calorie content: Most drinks are now between 29 and 31 grams of sugar, depending on the flavor.
“I know they’re full of sugar. I can read it on the label,” says Bocek. “If I want to cut out sugar I can get the diet version. Why are they doing it for me?” And with that, Bocek has highlighted the Vitaminwater dilemma—and the dilemma of the entire beverage industry. The industry is widely criticized—in some cases, even sued—for being unhealthy, but when a company tries to release a healthier version of its product, consumers complain that, as Bocek says, “it just tastes like chemicals.”
“We take our customers very seriously, and we’re appreciative of the loyalty and passion you have for our brand,” Vitaminwater wrote on its own Facebook page. “A lot of effort went into the new cane sugar and stevia formulation, and it’s something we’re proud to put on shelves.”
Bocek spent the weekend driving to different grocery stores and Targets, where she bought all the old all-sugar versions of Vitaminwater she could find. So far, she’s filled an entire refrigerator in her garage full with them. Other customers have done the same. A woman in California shared a picture on Facebook of about 100 bottles and wrote that she’d cleaned out five of her local stores.
A man in Indiana bought 15 cases, which he hopes will last him until Vitaminwater caves and switches back. Bocek doesn’t think that’ll happen, at least not anytime soon. “I’ll never drink the new stuff,” she says. “When these are gone, I guess I’ll just switch to tea or water.”