After some pushing from his wife, who was persistent in her belief that Otteson had to kick the soda habit for his health's sake, Otteson began reading about the problems with aspartame, a sweetener commonly used in diet sodas. Aspartame's negative side effects include weight gain, something he said he had experienced over the years. One can of regular soda also has between 35 and 50 grams of sugar, which is nearly twice the daily recommended intake, according to Otteson.
"One morning, I went out to the garage and went to grab a Diet Coke first thing in the morning to drink on my way to work, and I looked at it, and I said, 'Why isn't there a healthy, all-natural, very low-sugar soda?' And so I started looking around for one."
Most of what he discovered on the market was sweetened with stevia and erythritol, a sugar alcohol. Otteson didn't like the way the sodas tasted and said that drinking too much of those sweetened with sugar alcohols could cause stomach discomfort. He wanted to create a good-tasting natural soda that didn't have any aspartame or artificial sweeteners, or anything else artificial. Thus, Luma Soda was born.
Otteson began experimenting in his kitchen with his 13-year-old daughter, using a SodaStream machine to carbonate water and then adding in lemon, lime and stevia. The final product "didn't really work that well," he said. He contacted food companies for natural flavor samples, finally receiving a response from one representative who introduced Otteson to Sampson Hsia, a food scientist in Fremont.
Otteson and Hsia worked to produce a low-sugar, natural soda that "actually tasted good," Otteson said. The Luma website refers to this as "the dawning of a new age of soda."
They settled on monk fruit, named after the Chinese monks thought to have been the first to cultivate the round, green fruit, and a small amount of honey to naturally sweeten the soda.
Monk fruit contains a naturally occurring compound that is 300 times sweeter than sugar, Otteson said. It is also "essentially non-caloric" and contains antioxidants, Otteson said.
Luma Soda has 25 calories and 3-4 grams of sugar per 12-ounce serving.
Instead of adding preservatives, the company pasteurizes the soda to maintain its quality and shelf life.
The soda does not contain caffeine, which Otteson said was a conscious choice.
In ensuring that all of their products contain only natural ingredients and no "unnecessary additives," Luma faced some challenges, Otteson said, including finding a way to naturally color the soda.
There is "no real orange color" that is natural and water soluble, so coloring Luma's blood orange flavored soda required some creative alternatives. They ended up using beet juice to produce a pink color.
Luma's flavors include cola, cherry cola, lemon lime and blood orange.
Otteson and Hsia made the first batches of Luma in Hsia's kitchen, using a laboratory scale to precisely measure ingredients and then creating, tasting and reformatting the formulas and flavors. It was a learning process, Otteson said. The soda is now produced in Arizona, and he has an office in Mountain View.
The company, which Otteson named Luma for the word's simplicity and connotation to light, has been in business since last January. The company's distribution has largely been within Palo Alto, at restaurants including Sancho's Taqueria and Terun, grocery stores such as Country Sun Natural Foods and Piazza's Fine Foods and gym Form Fitness. The soda is also available for purchase online.
The owners recently signed a deal with a large natural foods distributor that Otteson hopes will allow Luma to be available in every state by the end of this year.
Having quit his full-time job to focus on the company's growth in the beginning of 2017, Otteson said he truly believes in his product.
"It's scary, no doubt about that. My family and my parents were a little worried in the beginning," he said, laughing. "But we've gotten a lot of great feedback. People are really excited about it. I think it's a great product."
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