Juice: Halfway Home

BY AARON DENTEL-POST

It seemed like a perfect fit: an all-natural zero-calorie sweetener, the first of its kind, cutting into the sugar and calories of juices without losing any of the sweetness.

Even with their complementary natural auras, stevia-sweetened mid-calorie and low-calorie juices been were slow to get off the ground. But it looks like they’ve finally arrived.

Look at Tropicana’s Trop50 line of fruit juice blends, which were introduced in 2009 and suffered through a disastrous re-branding effort that nearly sank the entire parent line. Combine that false start with the key problem with stevia – that it’s bitter and complicated to use – and there was something of a learning curve for consumers.

“It’s another aspect that consumers really want, which is a lighter and more refreshing juice,” said Kate Keller, Marketing Manager for Trop50. “If you switch from Tropicana to Trop50, you have to get used to it.”

Still, it seems like they are starting to. Trop50 flagship Orange has grown nearly 40 percent over the past year, according to Symphony IRI, and the brand sold more than $110 million in key grocery, convenience, mass and drug channels (excluding Wal-Mart), making it one of the fastest growing brands in the juice category, and off a very large, established base. According to Keller, 40 percent of the consumers who purchase will return – which means that the flavor is becoming less of an issue.

Nevertheless, other big companies have not yet made the stevia switch. Campbell’s V8 V-Fusion line still uses sucralose, for example, as does Ocean Spray for its lower-calorie lines.

PepsiCo was the earliest big-company adopter of stevia for juice, but they were soon followed by other entities of various size and purpose. Lo-Gly, for example, began with an idea to bring juice to diabetics, but it’s now marketed as a low glycemic index, stevia-sweetened juice blend that aims to provide natural aid in the uphill battle against expanding waistlines. But even with a clearly delineated mission, there’s a trade-off.

“You have to pick your battles,” said Dan Necochea, a manager in Lo-Gly’s corporate sales operation. “You can’t have a high percentage of juice and have low sugars and calories.”

Still, the overall consumer trend is toward cutting calories, and for beverages, that seems to be the larger overriding issue than taste variation. For Keller, it’s an encouraging sign that reading labels has become the vogue, and more juice consumers are concentrating on the bottle’s contents and calories.

“Almost 65 percent of our consumers say they read labels and monitor sugar intake,” she said.

Maral Barsoumian, Lo-Gly’s marketing director, says their sales have also been stoked by strong health interest from consumers.

“With more and more people dieting and all the articles on obesity, it makes sense we develop such a product,” Barsoumian said. “It wasn’t until recently that you go to a juice stand and see a calorie count.”

Coke’s consortium of companies also includes some juice brands. Currently, Odwalla has two stevia products, Odwalla Mo’ Beta and the Odwalla Strawberry Protein Monster, but it is also researching stevia-sweetened blends for Minute Maid and many other categories across the board. To break the staying power of stevia’s bitterness, Coke says it blends stevia with other natural sweeteners like sugar and fruit juice for a fulfilling final product.

“No single low- or no-calorie sweetener can match the taste and functionality of table sugar,” a Coke representative told Beverage Spectrum. “But some blends of sweeteners can achieve sweetness qualities that are very close.”

Tropicana’s Keller said killing the bitter bite of stevia is a question of mixing the right fruit flavors, and that often consumers connect more with blends because they don’t expect to know what the product will taste like.

“Our [research and development] team works really hard to find a taste profile that works for consumers,” Keller said.

When it comes to stevia’s troubling taste, Barsoumian said that Lo-Gly’s solution was a strong work ethic. Instead of contracting another company to develop a solution, they did all the work themselves.

“We’ve been able to get it to a point where you essentially can’t taste it,” said Barsoumian. “We literally did hundreds of experiments.”

For the bigger companies, particularly as the battle against calories continues, expect hundreds more.