Natural, low-calorie refreshment

by Allison Gibeson
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As consumers examine the number of calories in beverages, it may be expected they will gravitate toward choices with fewer calories. In fact, low-calorie beverages are a top beverage trend prediction for 2011, according to FoodChannel.com.

“It was impossible to ignore how food companies are leading the charge toward no or low-calorie beverages,” said Kay Logsdon, editor-in-chief of FoodChannel.com. “What makes it a trend is the consumer response. So, now it’s obviously time to consider the calorie cost. People are paying attention because they really do care about health, especially when companies make it easy to shave calories here and there.”

Yet it is easier to reduce the calories in some beverage categories than in others, and the calories must be reduced using natural means, said Gary Hemphill, managing director for Beverage Marketing Corp., New York.

“Diet segments and low-calorie segments of categories have been available for a very long time,” Mr. Hemphill said. “I think what’s changed is the consumer focus on healthier refreshment, but also technology. There are more low-calorie sweetener alternatives today, which allow companies to formulate better-tasting, low-calorie products. I think there is still a ways to go.”

PepsiCo, Inc., Purchase, N.Y., has several low-calorie products of note. Through its Tropicana brand it has Trop50 Lemonade as a low-calorie product without artificial sweeteners, which was achieved through the use of stevia.

“We created Trop50 to address important and relevant consumer tensions,” said Kate Keller, director of marketing for Trop50. “The brand first hit shelves in 2009 to meet the needs of people who left the juice category or reduced their consumption of juice because of sugar and calorie concerns.”

Achieving low-calorie status in fruit beverages isn’t always easy, Mr. Hemphill said. He identified fruit beverages as a particular challenge. He said Trop50 stands as a real success with those hurdles in mind.

Mr. Hemphill said there is a growing need for an all-natural, no-calorie or low-calorie sweetener for use in carbonated soft drinks. According to B.M.C., the diet beverage segment had 31% share of the soft drink market in 2010, up from 26% in 2000.

But Mr. Hemphill said consumers don’t perceive many current “diet” products on the market to be as natural as they would like. This has led to resistance, as there is a perception natural products are better than those viewed as artificial. He said while stevia products are available, in carbonated soft drinks formulations have proven less successful than has been the case for enhanced waters.

Yet in an effort to improve low-calorie cola offerings, Mr. Hemphill noted how PepsiCo is testing Pepsi Next, a mid-calorie cola. He said mid-calorie colas have been attempted before without much success, primarily because the taste failed to measure up to their full-calorie counterparts. But PepsiCo believes the new product has superior taste.

Products using stevia include PepsiCo’s SoBe waters and some varieties of Coca-Cola’s Odwalla juice.

In addition to the use of stevia, monk fruit is being used as a potential all-natural sweetener. FlatBelly Protein Shake, a whey protein drink of Maverick Brands, Palo Alto, Calif., is a product that uses Fruit-Sweetness, a monk fruit brand distributed by the New Zealand-based BioVittoria. Talking Rain Beverage Co. also is developing flavored water with monk fruit as the sweetener.

“Diet sweeteners aren’t sugar,” Mr. Hemphill said. “They taste different and behave differently than sugar does. There can be shelf-life issues, there can be stability issues (and) there can be taste issues. Those are the biggest issues — developing a high-quality great-tasting product that has a long, enduring shelf life and has good stability.”

Mr. Hemphill said some companies, such as Honest Tea, which is owned by The Coca-Cola Co., are using less sugar overall, which keeps calories low.

In the future, Mr. Hemphill said the low-calorie market will grow at a rate in excess of the overall market and gain share.

“The direction is only limited by technology,” Mr. Hemphill said. “In general people would have fewer calories than more calories. Innovation in the years ahead will allow companies to give consumers great-tasting low-calorie bev-erages. The focus for that will be natural sweeteners.”

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