Soft drink makers have a powerful thirst for a new sweetener

Diet soda sales at lowest in 16 years

Steps from the lobby of the Dr Pepper Snapple Group headquarters, a row of inauspicious Rubbermaid bins holds the crystallized future of the nation's third largest soft drink player.

The tubs contain sugar, the artificial sweetener aspartame and similar snowflake-like substances.

Like its competitors Coke and Pepsi, Texas-based Dr Pepper is deep in the hunt for a new sweetener that can replace existing artificial sweeteners. It has to taste like sugar yet be lower in calories. And it has to be natural.

The stakes are high. The Big Three soda makers lead an industry that's rounding out a decade of declining sales.

As regular sodas, and now diets, lose their fizz, soft drink makers are spending increasing amounts of time and energy looking for ways to sweeten the pot.

"This year will be the 10th year" of decline, said John Sicher, editor and publisher of the authoritative trade publication Beverage Digest. "Without new sweetener technology, I can't see a reason for that trend to change."

Carbonated soft drinks — the fizzy water that's been around since the 1800s — make up about 65 percent of sales of "liquid refreshment beverages." That's a roughly $120 billion retail category that includes everything from energy drinks to bottled water.

While price hikes have kept total soft drink revenue from tanking, the amount of soda sold (called volume) has been falling.

In 2013, total carbonated soft drink volume slid by 3 percent, according to Beverage Digest. That followed a 1 percent volume drop in both 2012 and 2011.

Between 2004 and 2013, sodas have seen a drop of 1.6 billion cases sold, according to Beverage Marketing Corp., a New York-based research and consulting firm.

The decline is especially steep in diet sodas.

For example, Dr Pepper's total volume slipped by a modest 0.2 percent last year, while Diet Dr Pepper lost 6.3 percent in 2013. Diet sales at rivals Coke and Pepsi have followed suit.

'VILIFIED UNJUSTLY'

The suspected culprit behind declines in both regular and diet sodas is the sweeteners.

Researchers and nutritionists have linked the consumption of regular soft drinks — which can have up to 170 calories and 45 grams of sugar in a 12-ounce can — to increasing U.S. obesity rates and development of Type 2 diabetes.

Drinking more than one can of regular soda per day can put consumers at increased risk of cardiovascular disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

David Thomas, executive vice president for research and development at Dr Pepper, thinks the soft drink industry has been "vilified unjustly" and counters that sugar-sweetened beverages represent just 6 percent of the average person's daily caloric intake.

On the diet side, some consumers have begun to shy away from artificial sweeteners amid reports linking at least one sweetener, aspartame, to an increased incidence of some cancers in lab rats.

 

FRONT-RUNNER

Food and drink makers are testing several natural sweeteners including extracts from monk fruit, a food consumed in China for centuries, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

But the apparent front-runner is stevia, a leafy plant native to subtropical regions such as Paraguay and Brazil. Compounds extracted from the stevia leaf can be 400 times sweeter than regular table sugar.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows highly purified stevia extracts — called steviol glycosides — to be used in food and drink.

Because the extracts have no chemical additives, products made with stevia are being marketed as naturally sweetened. That's expected to be a key selling point with diet soda consumers who've grown leery of the existing crop of artificial sweeteners.

Unlike the term "organic," the FDA does not have a strict definition of what constitutes a "natural sweetened" food or drink.

Malaysia-based PureCircle Ltd. describes itself as the world's largest producer of high purity stevia ingredients — responsible for producing up to 80 percent of the global supply.

Jason Hecker is president of Pure Circle's commercial division, which is based in Oak Brook, Ill.

He's looking beyond just making diet drinks more palatable.

'CERTIFIED FLAVORISTS'

At Dr Pepper Snapple Group, carbonated soft drinks represent about 80 percent of sales volume. That makes solving the sweetener conundrum of crucial importance.

"We're spending more on sweetener technology than we ever have," said Thomas, who leads a 70-member research team that includes scientists, engineers and "certified flavorists."

"We have Ph.D.-level people fully focused on sweetener technology."

Professorial and tall, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Ph.D. recently ushered visitors through the company's research and development center in the headquarters building.

At 23,158 square feet, it's about the size of a small supermarket. The spacious lab was almost library quiet and operating-room bright.

Each section holds an array of blinking, mixing and analytical machinery.

SWEETNESS CODE

Dr Pepper is not alone in trying to crack the sweetness code.

PepsiCo has boosted global spending on research and development, which includes research on sweeteners, by 27 percent to $665 million since 2011.

Sales figures tell why: Volume for Pepsi-Cola was down 3.6 percent last year, while Diet Pepsi shrank by 6.9 percent.

The soft drink maker began testing a stevia-sweetened version of Pepsi, called Pepsi Next, in Australia in 2012. The product has since been expanded to other countries including France and Canada.

Pepsi Next with stevia contains 100 calories and 26 grams of sugar in a 12-ounce serving.

In the U.S., however, Pepsi Next is sweetened with the artificial sweeteners ace-K and sucralose along with high fructose corn syrup and sugar. It has 60 calories and 15 grams of sugar in a 12-ounce can.

The company has not said when it will test Pepsi Next with stevia in the U.S.

At a beverage industry conference in June, Al Carey, chief executive of PepsiCo's Americas Beverages unit, said the company plans to reformulate its lemon-lime soft drink, Sierra Mist, with stevia and roll out the revamped drink nationwide this fall.

PepsiCo also reportedly is looking at Monatin. That's a naturally occurring sweetener derived from the root of a South African shrub, according to a book on sweeteners by Kay O'Donnell and Malcolm Kearsley.

PepsiCo chief executive Indra Nooyi, who's been under pressure from investors about soda sales, called the company's sweetener tests "promising."

Atlanta-based Coca-Cola, the world's largest soft drink maker, is about a year into a test of Coca-Cola Life, the company's first reduced-calorie cola sweetened with stevia leaf extract and sugar.

The pilot launched in June 2013 in Argentina and in November in Chile. The soft drink has 64 calories and 16 grams of sugar in a 12-ounce serving.

In June, Coke's Great Britain arm announced that Coca-Cola Life will be available across the U.K. later this year, marking the product's first appearance in Europe. Several publications predict a U.S. test soon.

Neither Coke nor Pepsi agreed to an interview with top company executives on the topic of sweeteners because of the sensitive and highly competitive nature of both the research and testing plans.

Instead, Coke issued a brief statement:

"Coca-Cola Life is our first cola sweetened with a blend of cane sugar and stevia leaf extract," the emailed statement said. "This innovation underscores our continued commitment to the sparkling category."

NO CURE-ALL EXPECTED

In the search for a new sweetener, Sicher of Beverage Digest is not looking for a "eureka" moment.

"It's unlikely to me that it's going to be one single ingredient and one company is going to have it," said Sicher. "There are going to be various forms of stevia, and other sweeteners, as well and sweetener enhancers," he said.

Gary Hemphill, managing director at Beverage Marketing Corp., expects to see soft drinks with new sweeteners make it to the market before year's end. Yet he cautions against expecting too much from tiny plant leaves.

"I don't think a new sweetener is necessarily a panacea to cure all ills of the industry," he said. "It's one potential innovation that would be likely to improve category performance."

As consumers have moved away from carbonated soft drinks, other categories, including water and energy drinks, have gained traction. That competition's not going away.

"We're continually seeing other new categories emerge," Hemphill said. "That fact remains regardless of what happens in areas like flavor innovation."

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