NEW YORK -- Pepsi is hoping to win back soda drinkers with a compromise.
Some people don't like the calories in regular soda, but loathe the taste of diet. So the No. 2 cola company in the U.S. is rolling out "Pepsi Next," a drink that has about half the calories of regular Pepsi at 60 calories per can.
The cola, which is slated to hit store shelves nationally by the end of March, is Pepsi's biggest product launch in years. The drink comes as people increasingly move away from sugary drinks to water and other lower-calorie beverages because of health concerns. It's also an attempt by Pepsi to revive the cola wars against Coke and others.
Pepsi Next isn't the first drink to try to hit the sweet spot between diet and regular cola. But coming up with a successful "mid-calorie soda," which has more calories, has been more challenging for beverage makers.
"The problem was that consumers either wanted regular soda or a diet drink with zero calories -- not something in between," said John Sicher, editor and publisher of Beverage Digest.
Pepsi says its latest stab at an in-between soda uses a different formula to more closely imitate the taste of regular soda. In addition to sugar, Pepsi Next is made with a mix of three artificial sweeteners and high fructose corn syrup.
A Pepsi spokeswoman, Melisa Tezanos, said the company developed the cola by researching the "taste curve" that consumers experience when drinking regular soda. She compared that arc to how someone might evaluate a sip of wine, from the moment it hits the tongue to the aftertaste it leaves.
"We wanted to develop a taste curve that gives the full flavour of regular Pepsi," Tezanos said.
Pepsi Next also follows the company's lower-calorie variations of its other drinks. Gatorade, a unit of Pepsi, has "G2," which at 20 calories has a little less than half the calories of the original version. And the company's Tropicana unit introduced "Trop50," which is half of the 110 calories in a regular 250-millilitre (eight-ounce) glass of orange juice.
But orange juice and sports drinks have nutritional benefits that a drink maker can market. A mid-calorie soda is a tougher sell because it provides only empty calories. Sales in the $74-billion soft drink industry have been fizzling out, with volume falling steadily since 2005, according to Beverage Digest, which tracks the industry. Meanwhile, healthier drinks are growing more popular, with bottled water accounting for 11 per cent of all beverages consumed in 2010, up from two per cent in 2000. Consumption of sports drink rose to 2.3 per cent, from 1.2 per cent.
Diet soda also rose to 29.9 per cent of the carbonated drink market in 2010, up from 24.7 per cent a decade earlier.
-- The Associated Press