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The low-calorie soft drinks market is no longer just about low-cal carbonates. A huge amount of new product development has been seen in categories such as flavoured waters, fruit juices, sports and energy drinks and dairy-based soft drinks. Soft Drinks International looks at the use of new ingredients and techniques in the development of new low-calorie beverages across the soft drinks spectrum.

The market for low-calorie soft drinks has always been dominated by carbonates with major brands such as Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi. With all the attention given to new functional ingredients and their health benefits, it has been easy to overlook the continuing success of low-calorie carbonates. And yet growth in low calorie consistently performs better than regular.

Market data from 2002 shows volumes of low-calorie carbonates ahead by 5% in Western Europe (compared to 1% growth in the market for regular) and by 12% in Eastern European markets. Volumes of low-calorie carbonates are now approaching 5,000 million litres making it one of Western Europe's largest soft drinks categories according to data from Canadean Soft Drinks Service 2002.

While it is in carbonates that consumers find the greatest choice of low-calorie beverages, the desire for more choice mean that manufacturers are extending the low sugar offer to other soft drinks sectors.

A report published last year by Reuters Business Insight entitled Growth Strategies in Soft Drinks to 2006, highlighted health and convenience as innovation drivers in the soft drinks market.

Consumers are increasingly aware of the relationship between diet and health. At the same time our busy and yet often sedentary lifestyles mean that many of us don't get the exercise we need. Time pressures and the need for convenience mean that people don't always eat or drink as healthily as they should.

Achieving balance
Healthy foods and drinks are, however, readily available and have a role to play in redressing this balance. But rather than 'dieting', consumers choose these products as part of an enjoyable and balanced diet. Low fat and low sugar products are no longer purely alternatives to original food or drink brands, but are just as likely to be a mainstream product or even a market leader.

In this environment, drinks that are low in sugar or sugar free are becoming more popular with consumers. In research carried out for Ajinomoto in December 2002, 1,000 people were asked which ingredients they were trying to consume less of or avoid. Fat and sugar ranked highest by far with 45% and 26% respectively. For parents, sugar ranked even higher than fat with 45% wanting to reduce their children's sugar intake compared to 42% wanting to reduce fat.

Future development
The soft drinks industry recognises this as an important feature of future product development. Presenting his 'Signs of the Future' at a soft drinks conference in the US recently, Mike Weinstein, President of Global Innovation at Cadbury Schweppes, predicted a rise in low sugar soft drinks that blend intense sweeteners and sugars as a direct response to consumer concerns about obesity.

The health benefits of a low-calorie diet are well-documented but one fact often overlooked is that sugar from all sources has the same amount of energy per gram (4 kcal). So whether your soft drink is sweetened with fructose, sucrose, honey or fruit juice concentrate, the energy intake will be the same. A can of regular soft drink contains the equivalent of seven teaspoons of sugar or 35g whereas a can of aspartame-sweetened soft drink contains only 1g.

Research also suggests that although many beverages are high in calories, those consumed in alcoholic drinks, soft drinks and fruit juices do not signal that we are full in the same way as calories from food. Therefore replacing sugar in a soft drink with aspartame both reduces a product's calorie content (by as much as 99%) and provides refreshment without additional calories the body does not need.

So the nutritional case for low sugar soft drinks is persuasive but the fact remains that healthy food and drinks are only successful when they taste good. This is where aspartame has a role to play as it not only reduces the number of calories and carbohydrate but also provides a sugar-like taste.

Still is fast moving
Still drinks cover a wide range of products from those with little or no juice content to more expensive, branded drinks. The wide appeal of the category is seen as an opportunity for producers to enhance or fortify beverages to deliver nutritional benefits for consumers of all ages. In still drinks containing fruit juice some fructose can be replaced with aspartame.

There are some still soft drinks on the market that are developed specifically for the adult market to be consumed in licensed premises, such as Britvic's highly successful J20. Products such as Hartwell's Diet Fruits, sweetened with aspartame, offer a light, and fruity alternative for those who do not want to drink alcoholic drinks.

Although health problems resulting from the intake of too many calories apply to everyone, there is particular concern for children. Many new products specifically targeted at children have 'no added sugar' versions sweetened with aspartame including P&G's Sunny Delight and Britvic's Fruit Shoot. Freekee Soda, targeted at slightly older children, is a unique new product from Britvic which is a carbonated dairy-based drink. It has no added sugar and is sweetened with aspartame and acesulfame-K.

In its report on nutrition in schools published recently the Scottish Executive recognised the positive role low sugar drinks can play in children's diets when it recommended fruit juices, water and low sugar flavoured waters as suitable accompaniments to primary school lunches. Its recommendations for secondary schools included "a staged process from sugary soft drinks to diet versions and the promotion of lower sugar squashes and flavoured waters is helpful."

Smoothly does it
Fruit smoothies are a fast growing sector but it has been suggested that some consumers are discouraged by the high calorie content. Aspartame can contribute to new smoothie formulations that don't contain quite so much sugar but maintain their fruity taste and texture.

Making a splash
Flavoured and near water products already benefit from the association of water as the ultimate healthy and refreshing drink. In these products the mouthfeel and sweetness of a high sugar content does not fit with the product proposition. Consumers are looking for a lighter, more subtle or 'hint' of flavour. Because aspartame works well with fruit flavours and actually enhances the fruitiness of citrus flavours, waters sweetened with aspartame, such as Perfectly Clear and Silver Spring's Strathmore in the UK, have proven very successful.

There are also some products that cross over the traditional soft drinks categories such as the new extension of the Lucozade Sport brand, Hydro Active, a sports water specifically targeted at women.

Fuelling growth
Sports and energy drinks are the fastest growing sector of the European soft drinks market and have developed from a niche market for serious athletes to a far more mainstream category. One of the most popular types of sports drink is isotonic. Such drinks are designed to deliver fluid and carbohydrate simultaneously and usually contain between 5-8% carbohydrate which means that the liquid is similar in osmolality to blood and therefore absorbed quickly. Product developers looking to appeal to the more mainstream consumer know that the 'taste-good' factor is critical to the product's success. Sweetness is a very important part of this and yet in drinks with 5-8% carbohydrate content sweetness can be unpalatably low. A combination of sugar and aspartame can provide significant benefits by delivering isotonicity in a drink which tastes good enough to consume in quantity.

Even in energy drinks that are designed to immediately provide an energy boost, aspartame can replace sugar. In Red Bull Sugar Free, taking out the sugar makes the product no less functional. The content of the energizing ingredients, taurine and caffeine, are the same in both products but Red Bull Sugar Free contains just 8 calories per can compared to 122 calories in the regular product. Red Bull Sugar Free is sweetened with a blend of aspartame and acesulfame-K.

Milking the benefits
In yoghurt and dairy drinks sweetness is often added to the fruit preparation before it is included in the final product. When replacing sugar other low calorie ingredients (such as oligofructose) can be used with aspartame to sweeten and thicken the fruit preparation. The calorie content of a 250ml yoghurt drink can be more than halved by replacing sugar with aspartame.

Strothmann's Molke Drink, on the market in Germany, is a low fat whey drink with added vitamins that is sweetened with aspartame and acesulfame-K. Dairy based breakfast drinks, for people to eat on the go, are a another good example of the opportunity for great-tasting and nutritionally balanced drinks that are low in calories and good for you. Aspartame is also used in probiotic dairy drinks to increase their nutritional appeal.

For more on Soft Drinks International visit www.softdrinksjournal.com


Companies: PepsiCo, Cadbury, Red Bull

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