February 24, 2024

Former first lady Michelle Obama has had a remarkable post-White House life. Two blockbuster books, an arena tour, a Netflix producing gig and a fashion renaissance, to tick off just a few of her crossed-off-the-to-do-list items.

So should we be surprised that the popular former FLOTUS is adding food-and-beverage entrepreneur to her growing list of credits? Obama this week unveiled a new brand called Plezi Nutrition, of which she is the co-founder and “strategic partner,” aimed at offering kids healthier options than the usual sugary stuff.

So far, the company has one product on shelves — a beverage that boasts 75 percent less sugar than “average leading fruit juices” and comes in four flavors — and plans to develop more drinks and snacks.

But the company isn’t just about getting better choices into kids’ lunchboxes — its bigger ambition is no less than altering the very multibillion-dollar ecosystem it operates in. The company is “on a mission to create higher standards for how the U.S. makes and markets food and beverages for kids, leading with nutrition, taste, and truth,” according to a news release.

“This industry is driven first and foremost by the bottom line,” Obama said during an appearance at the Wall Street Journal’s Future of Everything conference where she announced the launch. She said she thought that companies could be profitable while making foods that are healthier for kids, describing the new brand as an extension of the work she did as first lady to encourage healthier eating for children.

“I’m proud to announce the national launch of a company designed not just to provide better products, but to jump-start a race to the top that will transform the entire food industry,” she said.

All of which is lofty and admirable, but how, we wondered, does Plezi taste? Obama promised that it was created to please kids’ palates. “Kids have to want it,” she said, which made us think about how students started tagging the first lady in their pictures of “gross” school lunches after Obama championed healthier cafeteria standards.

I went to Target and grabbed each of the four flavors — Sour Apple, Blueberry Blast, Tropical Punch and Orange Smash — to see. (They were $4.99 for a four pack, and they’re also available at Sprouts and Walmart.com.) And because I’m not the target consumer, I enlisted a handful of my colleagues’ kids — eight girls and boys from age 3 to 11 — to take them for a test drive and offer their opinions.

First off, I was skeptical about the inclusion of noncaloric stevia leaf as a sweetener, since I usually find it imparts a far too cloying note to drinks meant to be healthier (I’m looking at you, Olipop). But such ingredients as fruit juices and fiber sounded good; the drinks each include 6 grams sugar, none of it added. And I liked the smaller serving size: Each bottle contains 8 ounces, which seems better, especially for kids, than the giant bottles you often find at convenience stores.

I sipped each and tried to figure out exactly what they were. Not juices, exactly, but more like the “fruit drinks” of my youth that often came from pitchers and made from little powder mixes. These all had brighter, fresher fruit flavors than what I remember of those childhood Kool-Aids. And the stevia pucker I worried about didn’t materialize — in fact, I don’t think I would have pegged them as stevia-sweetened if I hadn’t read the ingredient list.

Each one reminded me of some other drink, which is probably the point when offering a healthier alternative to standard juices and sugar-laden options. The sour apple was a little reminiscent of a Clearly Canadian drink I loved as a teen, with a juicy, green-apple edge. The Orange Smash brought to mind a more natural-flavored Gatorade, and the tropical punch tasted like a more premium version of the classic Kool-Aid. The Blueberry Blast, with its tongue-curling, Sour-Patch-Kid-like effect, was my least favorite, though I figure that was aimed at the taste buds of kids who are accustomed to that flavor profile.

Which is why I wanted to hear from the folks who might be drinking this stuff on car rides and on soccer-field sidelines. Would they be into it? Or would they call out these better-for-them sips as impostors?

Overall, the little people’s verdict was enthusiastic. There wasn’t a consensus on a superior flavor — or a unanimous loser — and each kid had different favorites.

“Ooh, that tastes really good,” one said about the punch version. “I really like the taste of the cherry. The cherry flavor really stands out, and in a good way.”

One taster found the orange and blueberry flavors to be “too tart” (I’m with you, kid). The orange reminded him of the pulp in fresh juices: “Like, you know that time when you make orange juice, and there’s kind of like those little pieces in it.” Another was distinctly not a fan of the purple one (the blueberry): “It tastes like medicine. Like the bad kind of medicine. The cheap kind.”

But both flavors got a “Mmmm, mmm, MMMMM,” from another. “Yummy!” was an oft-deployed adjective from two judges.

The kids confirmed my thought that the orange variety tasted like Gatorade, and two of them also likened the drinks to Capri Sun, which is probably a win for Plezi, since the new company’s offerings are lower in sugar than both of those name brands.

“Can I have some more?” summed up one fan.

And it might not be just for kids. Later in the evening, I got messages from two moms who had sampled what their offspring had left behind. “Pretty good,” said one. “They shockingly were not gross,” wrote another.

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