As consumers look for more healthful, lower-calorie options on the beverage shelf, producers are faced with the challenge of delivering drinks that have less sugar, but equal flavor. Finding the right sweetener or sweetener combination is the key to meeting consumer demands. That perfect balance, however, can be tricky and depend on a number of factors including what type of beverage is being produced, who the target audience is and the end goal for calorie count.
The trend is leaning toward mid-calorie beverages, not a new concept in the industry, but one that is making another appearance.
“Mid-calories have been tried before and haven’t succeeded,” notes Gary Hemphill, Managing Director and Chief Operating Officer, Information Services, Beverage Marketing Corporation based in New York City.
But as of late, the market has seen a number of new products that have been introduced touting a mid-calorie count such as Pepsi Next and in Europe, Sprite with 30-percent less sugar.
What has changed between then and now is the science and availability of sweeteners. Hemphill says that in the U.S., Pepsi Next was the most high profile mid-calorie launch. The new product offers 60-percent less sugar with 40 calories per 8-ounce serving, which is achieved through a combination of sweeteners including high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), aspartame, sucralose and Ace-K. While HFCS has gotten a bad rap in the past, Dr. John White, founder and president of White Technical Research and a 30-year veteran of the sweetener industry who was associated with Corn Refiners Association, says that there is a role for corn sweeteners in mid-calorie beverages as it offers flavor enhancement to products.
Continues Hemphill, “The technology and the availability of sweeteners has improved to the point where [PepsiCo] could develop an even better tasting mid-calorie product then we had seen in the market historically and so this may resonate with consumers.”
The jury is still out on Pepsi Next, but other low-calorie or mid-calorie offerings, depending on how the market is defined, such as Dr Pepper Ten, have seen such success that the Dr Pepper Snapple Group has extended its 10-calorie offerings to other drinks in its portfolio.
PepsiCo also launched a mid-calorie beverage for the Lipton trademark earlier this year: Lipton 100 Calorie Half & Half (Tea and Lemonade) using HFCS.
“Beverage manufacturers are really under pressure to reduce calories as consumers are concerned about health issues and certainly a desire to live well and they are seeking healthier foods and beverage options,” says Sally Aaron, Marketing Manager for Truvía stevia leaf extract, Cargill.
Sprite with 30 percent less sugar is achieved using Truvía stevia leaf extract. The product recently launched in Europe. Other beverages that contain the sweetener are Vitaminwater Zero, Odwalla, Steaz and Crystal Light Pure, just to name a few.
“Truvía is the newest edition to our sweetener portfolio and it’s derived from the stevia leaf,” says Aaron. “It can be blended with erythritol in some applications and can be applied broadly in mid-calorie beverages. It gives consumers another choice and can lead to great tasting beverages.”
Ralf Loeffelholz, VP product management, Sucralose, Tate & Lyle, says, “Depending on the sugar reduction, the key is balancing flavor, sweetness, and mouth feel.” Tate & Lyle offers a range of zero-calorie and nutritive sweeteners, complementary sweetener systems, mouth feel technology and the know-how and expertise on how to balance the system, he adds. Tate & Lyle’s toolbox includes Splenda sucralose, Purefruit Monk Fruit Extract, Tasteva Stevia sweetener and Krystar Crystalline Fructose.
“Our goal at Tate & Lyle is to develop and offer the best tasting sweeteners in class,” says Jeremy Thompson, director product management, Natural Sweeteners, Tate & Lyle. For example, the company’s Purefruit Select is an optimized monk fruit extract that has a “pure clean taste.”
Meanwhile the company’s newest offering, Tasteva Stevia sweetener, allows a 50-percent reduction in sugar without bitterness, notes Thompson, “setting this product apart from other stevia products.” This past year, Tate & Lyle developed a 50-percent reduced sugar Cola prototype with Tasteva.