For consumers with a taste for nostalgia and those with a taste for sodas made with all-natural ingredients, Pepsi has introduced three new products: Pepsi Natural, Pepsi Throwback and Mountain Dew Throwback. The latter two are simply their namesakes reformulated with natural sugar, while Pepsi Natural is an all-natural product with a different flavor profile.

Per Mintel, the number of people purchasing regular carbonated soft drinks fell by 16.5 million from 2003-2008, as virtually every other non-alcoholic beverage segment saw gains. Sports drinks, energy beverages and diet sodas all enjoyed growth, but the largest, by far, came in bottled water. Some 24 million additional consumers purchased bottled water than in 2003, and a number of soft drink manufacturers are hoping they know why.

Natural and organic trends have been key for some time, but recent innovation, including a new natural sweetener, has garnered the attentions of beverage manufacturers. Late last year, federal regulators gave the green light for the use of stevia. Both PepsiCo and Coca-Cola have plans for beverages with the natural zero-calorie sweetener, and FDA approval is expected to lead to numerous other launches, as manufacturers who have long relied upon artificial sweeteners embrace this natural alternative. Reed’s Original Beverage already has joined the pack, with the launch of stevia-sweetened Real Diet Cola under its Virgil’s brand, and All Sport Inc. and Dr Pepper Snapple Group Inc. are bringing the ingredient into the sports drink arena with All Sport Naturally Zero.

Natural claims have been appearing across the beverage aisles and in interesting formulations. Hibix introduced Sparkling Hibiscus Beverage under its Ooba brand. This “100% natural” drink promises to be high in vitamin C and loaded with “super-antioxidants.” In addition, Esteban’s Cola Drink has launched from Oogavé. Sweetened with 100% organic agave, the all-natural soda is free of artificial colors, flavors, salt and preservatives. Another all-natural RTD tea also debuted recently, with Cricket Natural Beverages’ release of Pomegranate Raspberry Green Tea in flavors such as Mandarin Green Tea, Micro Brewed Cola and White Peach Green Tea.

Beverages seem to suffer the most from consumer awareness of the possible negative health effects of artificial colors, flavors and preservatives, which some argue can trigger allergies, hyperactivity and ADHD. Furthermore, whether warranted or not, the category has come under fire for its use of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), and a number of efforts are underway to replace HFCS in offerings.

The most notable of those efforts has come from PepsiCo. While its chief competitor has had a Passover version of Coke (made with natural sugar) for a number of years, Pepsi has gone to even further lengths as part of its “Refresh Everything” campaign. Three of its products (Pepsi Natural, Pepsi Throwback and Mountain Dew Throwback) have been sweetened with sugar. Pepsi Natural is positioned primarily as a premium, all-natural soft drink and can be found in select cities. The cola-flavored drink has an ingredient legend boasting natural sugar, caramel, kola nut and apple extract. However, its flavor is unique and by no means an imitation of its regular Pepsi or its Throwback counterpart.

The Throwback varieties both feature natural sugar in their formulations. However, other than the retro-look packaging, they are positioned as Pepsi and Mountain Dew flavor, simply made with sugar. The pair does have a flavor profile somewhat different from their namesakes, but consumers who want to give these bits of nostalgia a try have a limited time: they will be available across the U.S. only through the middle of June. Early consumer feedback on the products has been positive, but PepsiCo has not indicated plans to extend the limited-time positioning.

Sugar also sweetens Snow Beverages’ Naturally Flavored Vitamin Soda range, which includes Pure Cola, Lemon Lime and Cranberry Pomraz varieties. “An alternative to the common soft drink,” according to the manufacturer, the lightly carbonated sodas are free of caffeine, preservatives and artificial flavors and “contain fewer calories than most leading no-diet soft drinks.” Snapple also announced plans to switch to plain sugar for its sweetening, claiming the move will trim about 40 calories from some of its offerings and add what it termed is “a fuller bodied taste.”

For one new product from Funktional Beverages, however, sugar, HFCS and all artificial sweeteners are absent. Pro-Relaxation & Calming Elixir is positioned as a premium healthy soda featuring ingredients with proven relaxation effects. The three flavors are Classic Grape, Berry Calming and Sippin Citrus.

Convenient Smoothies
When it comes to healthy positioning, however, few segments can hold a candle to the positive news surrounding smoothies. Fresh fruit smoothies have long been touted as a nutritious treat, and Chiquita has partnered with Old Orchard to make the products even more convenient. Chiquita Frozen Fruit Smoothie concentrates are blend-and-serve offerings in four flavors: strawberry banana, banana colada, peach mango and mixed berry. With no artificial sweeteners, colors, preservatives, gluten or dairy, each smoothie features at least a half-cup of fruit and a day’s worth of vitamin C.

Similar health concerns and convenience demands prompted Attitude Drinks Inc. to launch a pair of innovative milk drinks. Phase III Recovery attempts to capitalize on the scientific evidence supporting low-fat chocolate milk as an efficient sports recovery beverage. The company notes the product has been formulated to “deliver the most effective protein-to-carbohydrate ratio.” The other launch, Just! Metabolic Health, is for consumers looking to improve their metabolic health (including weight management and heart health). The fat-free, no-sugar-added, chocolate milk drink is formulated using ingredients found naturally in milk “to deliver features proven to provide the benefits of fat burn and reduction of oxidative and inflammatory heart stress.” Both are packaged in eco-friendly, resealable bottles containing the shelf-stable drinks.

Looks Matter
Seldom doesPrepared Foodsdelve deeply into packaging and labeling issues, but one relaunch begs attention. PepsiCo rebranded its Tropicana Pure Premium and introduced an entirely new look to its cartons at the beginning of the year, a design from a prominent designer at a significant cost. Less than two months later, the design was scrapped, as Pure Premium’s unit sales plummeted 20% between January 1-February 22, according toAdvertising Age. Information Resources Inc. (IRI) reports the product’s dollar sales fell 19%--roughly $33 million over the period. IRI further found the losses came at the benefit of Tropicana’s competitors, as Minute Maid, Florida’s Natural and Tree Ripe all posted double-digit increases in unit sales over the same time frame. All was in a segment where unit sales had remained flat, and dollar sales had fallen by 5%.

Tropicana, however, made a rather bold effort on the formulation side of things, by adding stevia to a new juice. Available in three varieties (pulp-free, some pulp, and pulp-free calcium and vitamin D), Trop50 promised “the goodness of orange juice, with 50% less sugar and calories, and no artificial sweeteners.” Nevertheless, an 8oz glass still provided a day’s supply of vitamin C, plus 10% of the daily requirements of vitamins A and E, and served as a good source of potassium. The PepsiCo division noted the product was the result of 18 months of research and development, which culminated in a formulation designed to ensure the juice was rich in nutrients, yet low in sugar and calories.

Nestle likewise innovated in the juice aisle, though its efforts were a bit more functional and strongly aimed at children. Two launches from the food giant targeted young people at different stages of growth and development, and both included fruit juice fortified with nutrients and blended with filtered water. The company notes the filtered water (70% juice, 30% water) reduced calorie and naturally occurring sugar content. Juicy Juice Brain Development incorporated DHA, described as “a building block for brain development during a child’s first two years of life.” Each serving of the juice contains 16mg of DHA per serving.

For youngsters a little older, Juicy Juice Immunity added zinc, prebiotic fiber and vitamin C. The product’s fiber content (3g per serving) may be a key selling point, as children between the ages of 3-5 years old consume an average of 11.4g per day, compared with the recommended amount of 25g daily.

In news of beverages geared to grown-ups, a pair of studies may offer some encouragement to consumers who enjoy a tipple. According to research at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, regular moderate alcohol intake was associated with improved bone mineral density (BMD). Published in theAmerican Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the epidemiological study of men and post-menopausal women primarily over the age of 60 found the associations were most significant in beer and wine. However, BMD was “significantly lower in men drinking more than two servings of liquor per day,” suggesting heavy consumption negates the positive effects of moderate imbibing. Men saw higher BMD from beer, while women’s BMD benefited most from wine, compared to liquor drinkers of either gender.

Wine likewise had a beneficial effect on esophageal cancer, according to two studies published in Gastroenterology. Both found that people who consumed wine (white or red) in moderation were less likely to develop conditions that may lead to esophageal adenocarcinoma. However, researchers did note alcohol intake is well-established as a risk factor for the other main form of esophageal cancer, squamous cell carcinoma.

At the same time, a UCLA study found that three cups of green or black tea a day can significantly reduce the risk of stroke by 21%. The study was published inStroke: Journal of the American Heart Association.

Finally, research in Canada may offer an opportunity for significant innovation in the beverage category. Flaxseed gums, while common as texturizing agents in the cosmetic industry, have yet to emerge in food applications. However, University of Guelph findings published inFood Hydrocolloidsindicated “that, up to a 0.1% level of flaxseed gum, electrostatic interactions between gum and whey protein produced a stable emulsion.” The university’s Marcela Alexander explained, “The results of this study will give practical information on how to incorporate this novel polysaccharide with a positive nutritional image in beverages already fortified with proteins.”pf