The latest entry is coming from Zevia, a fast-growing independent brand that's now among the top 20 low-cal carbonated soft drinks (CSDs) and was one of just two to see sales gains this year, according to BevNET.com.
Zevia is rolling out a new sweetener system dubbed "SweetSmart" that includes three natural ingredients: monk fruit extract (also known as luo han guo or LHG), the purest form of stevia or Rebaudioside A yet used in a beverage (99% Reb A, versus Zevia's current 97%), and erythritol.
SweetSmart comprises 82% stevia, the plant-based sweetener by now familiar to consumers; 3% erythritol (a component of fruits, vegetables and grains obtained through a natural fermentation process, classified as a sugar alcohol, although it has a zero glycemic index); and 15% monk fruit extract, which comes from a melon grown in mountainous areas of Asia.
Launches of foods and beverages containing monk fruit extract have tripled over the past five years, Mintel analyst Laura Jones told BeverageDaily.com. While still most often as a stand-alone sweetener, more CSDs and non-carbonated beverages (such as iced teas) have been introducing formulations that blend monk fruit (or crystalline fructose and/or erythritol) with stevia, to offset or mask the bitter aftertaste that has been stevia's biggest drawback.
According to Zevia, it's the first among top-100 diet soda brands to use monk fruit.
While Jones said that monk fruit itself -- although not bitter -- can produce an "off" taste, Zevia CEO Paddy Spence told BevNET that the brand's new combination of high-purity stevia, monk fruit and a small amount of erythritol achieves a high level of sweetness and reduced bitterness that's "game-changingly different."
Indeed, Zevia -- which now has sales of $60 million-plus -- sees the new formulation as an important advantage and additional differentiator as it pushes to continue to gain share against the dominant zero- and low-cal offerings of giants including Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, he said.
Spence told BevNET that the company won't call out the monk fruit addition on the front of its cans and glass bottles (although it is, of course, in the ingredients label), instead letting consumers discover the new taste as the product hits shelves.
However, in addition to using PR/media outreach to spread the word about its new formulation, Zevia is prominently promoting SweetSmart on its Facebook and Twitter pages (respectively showing more than 83,000 "likes" and about 7,500 followers, at present), as well as in its blog and enewsletter. (The brand also has Pinterest and Instagram accounts.)
A Facebook call-out, for example, proclaims "Introducing #SweetSmart, a major innovation in the taste of our sodas! We've 'cracked the code' on even better flavor by adding monk fruit to make a good thing truly great!"
Zevia, which is sold in 16,000 grocery, mass merchandiser and other U.S. retail stores, reports that it was #14 among low-/zero-calorie CSDs in supermarkets in the past 12 weeks; it also said that its sales during that period in the overall U.S. food retail channel nearly doubled versus the same period last year.
The brand, which now has 15 flavor varieties, is also sold online (including on Amazon and Netrition.com, in the U.S. and TheLowCarbGrocery.com in Canada). Currently, the existing (not new) formulation products are, for example, going for about $6 for six-packs of 12-ounce cans, and for about $27 (on Amazon) for 24-packs of 12-ounce cans. (There are a variety of quantity-buying options for the products' cans and bottles, and Zevia said it will intro a new 10-pack option in conjunction with the new formulation.)
Meanwhile, with the diet soda category having contracted at a faster rate than regular sodas for three straight years (including a dollar sales decline of 6.8% for zero- and low-cal sodas for the 52 weeks ended Nov. 23, versus a 2.2% decline for regular sodas, reported The Wall Street Journal), the soda giants are working fast to develop their own new variations or blends of natural sweeteners.
Coca-Cola, for instance, is developing a new stevia variant with PureCircle Ltd. that could win FDA approval in the coming weeks, according to WSJ. (PureCircle already developed super-high-purity, "Stevia 3.0" extracts, and better taste profiles using other steviol glycosides, reported BeverageDaily.)
Coca-Cola also began marketing the first stevia-containing version of its flagship brand in South America this year, a mid-calorie cola called Coca-Cola Life which, per WSJ, it "hasn't ruled out" introducing in the U.S. as well. And its Glacéau Vitaminwater uses a blend of stevia, erythritol and crystalline fructose, according to Mintel's Jones.
PepsiCo dropped aspartame from its mid-calorie Pepsi Next in April, plans to launch a new diet soda next year, and is currently assessing a new stevia variant/sweetener enhancer developed by Senommyx Inc., WSJ added.
Artificial sweeteners in general, and aspartame in particular, have been the subject of significant, persistent negative buzz online, despite the beverage industry's efforts to counter these.
For instance, the American Beverage Association recently sent out a release pointing out that the European Food Safety Authority had once again (based on "one of the most comprehensive risk assessments of aspartame to date") affirmed aspartame's safety, concluding that aspartame "does not cause cancer, harm the brain or nervous system or affect behavior or cognitive function in children or adults." This latest research, ABA said, "supports decades of scientific research as well as the positions of regulatory agencies around the globe, including FDA."
That followed Coca-Cola's campaign this past summer specifically defending aspartame's safety, stressing the hundreds of studies supporting that safety.
But as WSJ noted, Coca-Cola recently told investors that it believes "very strongly" in the future of Diet Coke, the #1 diet soda – and it's upped its support of the brand with its major investment in signing Taylor Swift as Diet Coke's spokesperson and marketing and packaging efforts showcasing Swift.