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New sugar substitute hits shelves

NEW YORK — The $112 billion beverage industry, continuing its quest for the perfect no-cal sweetener, began cautiously rolling out a handful of products with a new sugar substitute that got federal approval this week.

Rebaudioside A, natural extract from the stevia plant known as Reb A, got much-awaited approval from the Food and Drug Administration. Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have jumped to try it right away in a few mainly juice and water products to see how consumers accept it.

“I do not expect to see it on any of the flagship brands any time soon,” says beverage expert John Sicher, editor of Beverage Digest.

Reb A zero-calorie varieties of Pepsi’s SoBe Lifewater rolled into stores Thursday, and in March Pepsi will introduce Trop 50, a 50-calorie Tropicana juice drink that also has a dash of sugar.

“We are working across the board, and we will bring the products to market when they are ready,” says PepsiCo Americas CEO, Massimo d’Amore.

This month Coke will introduce 50-calorie versions of Odwalla with Reb A and sugar, and 50-calorie Sprite Green will launch in Chicago and New York.

Beverage executives are jazzed about the product because of consumer demand for beverages that are low-calorie and perceived as healthier.

But whether Reb A, which is believed to provide better taste, is the magic bullet for the flagship colas is uncertain. For now, Coke and Pepsi are working to see how Reb A mixes with cola and other soft drinks.

“We’re testing stevia and Reb A in a variety of products, but it absolutely comes down to taste,” Joe Tripodi, chief marketing officer for Coca-Cola, said at an industry meeting this week.

Reb A mixes well with juices because their flavors better mask other tastes, and they have a healthy perception. So does stevia, because it’s from a plant.

“Leaf extract sounds much better than chlorinating sugar or methylating a couple of amino acids,” says Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University and author of “What to Eat” and “Food Politics.”

“It has a much less chemical sound even though it’s a chemical. (It has an aura the way) tea has a healthier aura. Whether it is remains to be seen.”

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