Stevia - a natural sweetener extracted from the leaves of the stevia plant - is hundreds of times sweeter than sugar, but even high purity Rebaudioside A (Reb-A), the least bitter sweetness compound derived from the plant, has a disagreeable aftertaste for some consumers.
Speaking with BeverageDaily.com, Felgate said that by “overcoming” these aftertaste issues - leading supplier PureCircle is developing novel stevia sweeteners using different blends of steviol glycosides - manufacturers can further cut the sugar levels and calorie count of their soft drink products.
“Stevia appeals to consumers because it is natural,” said Felgate.
“If mid-calorie soft drink manufacturers can overcome the bitter aftertaste associated with stevia there will be opportunities to reduce the amount of sugar even further,” she added.
“Natural sweeteners are becoming more normal and more accepted by consumers as time goes on," Felgate sid. "Overcoming these aftertaste issues will be a bit factor going forward.”
The low- to mid- calorie soft drinks category grew out of flagging US demand for traditional soft drink products. According to Felgate, consumers have increasingly been ditching traditional soft drinks for healthier alternatives such as fruit juice.
Carbonated soft drink manufacturers hope that these low- to mid-calorie innovations will help to regenerate interest in the overall category.
Mid-calorie confusion for consumers
PepsiCo and Dr Pepper Snapple were the first to launch low- to mid-calorie soft drink products in the US.
PepsiCo’s Pepsi Next cola, which is sweetened with a blend of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), aspartame, acesulfame-K, and sucralose, contains 60% fewer calories than regular Pepsi.
The Dr Pepper TEN concept, which is targeted at men, contains just ten calories. It was developed in an attempt to brush off the diet image of other lower-calorie soft drinks. Dr Pepper Snapple has followed up this launch with 7UP TEN, A&W TEN, Canada Dry TEN, Sunkist TEN, and RC TEN.
These products have already proved popular with US consumers, said Felgate.
She warned, however, that the development of the mid-calorie soft drink category may actually lead to some confusion among consumers.
“We already have regular and diet versions of these brands and companies including Coca Cola and PepsiCo also have zero-calorie soft drink options,” she said.
“The introduction of this mid-calorie category has definitely added some complexity to the choice consumers have to make. In the end they might just go for something they already know, which could hinder the success of mid-calorie drinks.”
Dr Pepper 'achieving' category revival goal
Despite some early signs of success, it is “too early” to tell if the category will, as hoped, drive a revival in overall soft drinks demand, said Felgate.
“It is a relatively new market, so it is too early to tell how well the market for mid-calorie soft drinks is doing,” she said. “But Pepsi Next and Dr Pepper TEN have been really popular in the US since they were launched.”
Speaking with BeverageDaily.com, Dr Pepper Snapple director of corporate communications, Chris Barnes, said however that signs of a revival in soft drink demand are already evident.
(N.B. With ten calories per 8oz (236ml) serving, Dr Pepper's TEN platform is technically a low-calorie soda, but along with Pepsi NEXT, it still seeks to stake out a 'middle ground' in US sodas between no and full calorie products.)
“We developed the low-calorie TEN platform based on the insight that there are a number of consumers who love the taste of regular soft drinks but are increasingly watching their calories,” said Barnes. “Instead of switching to traditional diet carbonated soft drinks these consumers are cutting back consumption or leaving the category altogether.”
“Consumer feedback has been very positive and sales have been highly incremental to the soft drink category – meaning that we are achieving our goal of bringing lapsed soft drink consumers back into the category,” he added.