Ray Rowlands of Drinksinfo Ltd considers some of the product innovations that have shaped the US cola market following news of the pending launch of an omega-3 variant.

It appears that the US cola market may be taking on a whole new dimension. Long gone are the simplistic days when you just had regular cola and (from the 1960s) low-calorie offerings to choose from.

Today, these drinks also come caffeine-free, with or without additional flavourings and with a choice of sweetening agents. Caffeine-Free Pepsi, though not the first of its kind, was introduced, initially under the brand name Pepsi Free, in 1982 to serve those members of the public who liked the taste of Pepsi but did not want the buzz associated with caffeine. It was followed the next year by Caffeine-Free Coca-Cola, but the evolutionary ladder does not end there.

Last month, we heard of the arrival of caffeine-free Coca-Cola Zero. Prior to this, there has been a growing array of flavour variations that have flooded the market, including Cherry Coke (first released in 1985), Pepsi Blue (2002) plus Pepsi Vanilla and Vanilla Coke, which were both introduced around the turn of the century.

Then, there are the sweetening agents, which - sugar aside include aspartame, saccharin plus sucralose and now stevia, the last of which I looked at in my earlier article on Pepsi Next. Now, the cola story is about to take a new twist with the announcement that Change Cola with omega-3 fatty acids will be launched in the US later this year.

Omega-3s are "essential" fatty acids that help to prevent inflammatory diseases like heart disease and arthritis. There are three types of fatty acids that are collectively referred to as omega-3's: ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), EPA (eicosapentaenoic), and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). They are necessary for health and should be included in your diet because the body cannot manufacture them on its own.

Of course, many people are already aware of this and have adjusted their diets or take supplements (e.g. fish oil capsules) in order to take advantage of them. Unfortunately, there is a difficulty in getting the younger generation involved here. Fatty fish, such as salmon and mackerel, are the richest source of omega-3 fatty acids. However, with the exception of breaded fish sticks (fish fingers) children tend to shun fish and the aftertaste that can come with taking oil capsules can be equally off-putting to the little mites.

The addition of omega-3s to cola, then, is a rather original approach that should appeal to younger family members. Indeed, considering the modern theme of healthy eating and drinking, the trend towards adding omega-3 to soft drinks might even be considered long overdue. That said, Change Cola is not, in fact, the original trendsetter here. Tropicana Healthy Heart launched in 2007, for example, claimed to be the first national orange juice drink to include omega-3s. However, adding omega-3s to cola is something of a boundary-shifting idea.

Change Cola is the brain child of Jim Phillips, who is also owner of Rocket Advertising. Whilst claiming to have worked with some of the world's largest brands, Phillips' other company is not ostensibly a mainstream beverage marketing agency.

The prospect of launching a cola brand, and an omega-3 variation at that, is therefore both unexpected and intriguing. The inspiration for the drink apparently came five years ago, when Jim was diagnosed with a life-threatening disorder and he attributes omega-3s with saving his life. (The makings of a nice marketing story if ever I heard one).

Because of his illness, he had to give up soft drinks and so had the idea of producing a low-glycemic nutritional supplement that had the taste of cola but also with the health advantages of omega 3s. Due out towards the end of this year, the brand will target health food stores and other upscale retailers. 

The cola will deliver 32mg of Omega-3 EPA and DHA, making it a good source of these fatty acids, according to the guidelines set by the US Food and Drug Administration. For the environmentally-conscious, the brand will also come bottled in “green packaging”.

What more could you ask for?

The biggest puzzle for me is why he's chosen cola, especially in relation to the US market, where cola volumes have nose-dived on an annual basis for over a decade.

On top of this, the success rate for innovative cola products is not that high, even with big name backing. Take the case of Pepsi Twist, a lemon cola introduced in 2001. It lasted just six years in the US, which was actually better than for stable mate Pepsi Blue (berry), which only survived  from mid-2002 to 2004. Coffee-flavoured Coca-Cola Blak, meanwhile, managed a similar life span.

Such product innovation has been accompanied by massive multi-million dollar advertising spends, often with high-profile celebrity backing.

It is doubtful that Change Cola will receive anything like the level of support that Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have pumped into their numerous launches over the years. Change Cola may seem a refreshing prospect at face value but, when it comes down to actual sales potential and product longevity, don't be too surprised if this turns out to be just another flash in the pan.