By Kelly Bastone
If water tasted like blueberries and pomegranates, would you drink more? Nuun thinks so. The company’s quarter-sized tablets fizz like Alka Seltzer and transform simple H2O into electrolyte-laden drinks subtly flavored like cherry limeade and mango orange. With varieties that bump energy levels and enable endurance athletes to push themselves, it’s no surprise the brand is popular with niche communities like ultrarunners, mountain bikers—the tablets don’t foul hydration pack bladders—and triathletes. CEO Kevin Rutherford, however, is hoping to break into more mainstream markets: He sees Nuun as the next Gatorade—only without all the nasty stuff.
Before taking the helm as Nuun’s CEO in 2013, Rutherford promoted Bear Naked granola and turned mainstream buyers on to Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day, a line of plant-based cleaning products. Since joining the Nuun team, he’s been cleaning up the company’s formulas, too.
Founded in 2004 by triathlete Tim Moxey, the original Nuun tablets offered athletes a portable dose of electrolytes that was also sugar-free, thanks to artificial sweeteners such as acesulfame potassium (a calorie-free additive that’s about 200 times sweeter than sugar). Rutherford swapped out Nuun’s chemical elements for monkfruit-juice extract, avocado oil, and non-GMO-sourced dextrose. Yes, that’s a sugar, but the new Nuun contains roughly a gram of it per tablet, which at those levels is almost certainly better for you than that acesulfame stuff.
Nuun isn’t the only sports drink to eschew weird chemicals. Skratch Labs makes a tasty, all-natural electrolyte powder, and drink company Greater Than uses coconut water as their base—but Nuun is the first sports drink to challenge PepsiCo by marketing good-for-you hydration to the masses. They also earn green credits for the stripped down carbon footprint the wee tablets offer. Each recyclable tube—the size of a roll of quarters—produces 10, 16-ounce drinks. That ease of handling in part helped Nuun become the sponsor of more than 150 running, cycling, triathlon, and obstacle course events. More recently, the company launched co-branded four-packs that kick back to good causes like PeopleForBikes and The Conservation Alliance.
All the good Nuun is pumping into its simple tablets seems to be resonating with consumers. As a company, Nuun has doubled in size since Rutherford took over. “Even among performance-minded athletes, food trends have shifted from the lab coat to the apron,” he says.
From our High Summer 2016 issue.