“Natural” Soft Drinks

The money that carbonated soft drink companies spend on advertising is astounding. Coca Cola dishes out about 235 million dollars a year to push its flagship product. But as far as producers are concerned, advertising dollars are well spent, the global soft drink market is worth about 75 billion dollars a year! Colas are the most popular drinks, with lemon-lime flavoured beverages ranking a distant second, accounting only for about 10% of sales. Of course that is still a hefty amount, but companies are concerned because sales of these drinks have been dropping.

So what can you do to boost sales of a product that has no redeeming nutritional features? That’s the question the Pepsi Cola Company asked when confronted by sagging sales of its prime lemon-lime flavoured product, “Sierra Mist.” Well, why not ask customers what they want? So the company carried out a survey targeting customers who had given up the lemon-lime beverage. What change would get them to try the product again? The answer was clear. Customers would “re-engage with the beverage” if it was “natural.” Ah, the magic word in marketing these days! Natural! Given the general public’s widespread and wrong belief that natural substances are inherently safe, the results of the survey aren’t really surprising. Of course bacterial toxins, poison ivy, moulds and snake venoms are all natural. But as far as marketing goes, the consumer is right even when he is wrong. If people are more likely to buy a product festooned with a “natural” label, producers are quite willing to comply, even if the natural designation has no practical significance.

So how do you convert Sierra Mist into Sierra Mist Natural? The flavor in the beverage, an extract of lemons and limes was natural to start with. It was boosted with the addition of citric acid and potassium citrate, which one could argue are natural. Citric acid can be isolated from citrus fruits and potassium citrate can me made by neutralizing citric acid with potassium carbonate which is found in potash, so it is “natural,” although a bit of a stretch. What then prevented the original Sierra Mist from being labeled “natural?” It was sweetened with high fructose corn syrup, the sweetener of choice for many beverages because it can be produced more cheaply than ordinary sugar.

High fructose corn syrup is made by adding microbial enzymes to corn syrup to convert some of its glucose content to fructose. Corn syrup is cheap, and fructose is sweeter than glucose, so high fructose corn syrup is an economical sweetener. It has its detractors who point out that fructose is metabolized differently in the body than glucose and that it contributes to weight gain by not providing the same degree of satiation as sucrose, or table sugar. And of course it is not perceived as “natural” because of the processing involved. While most people do not consider sucrose to be inherently healthy, they do think of it as natural since it comes from the sugar cane or sugar beet.

What now makes Sierra Mist Natural, “natural” is that it is sweetened with sugar instead of with high fructose corn syrup. Aside from perception this difference is insignificant. Actually sugar is a highly refined product, many steps away from its sugar cane or sugar beet source, hardly more natural than high fructose corn syrup. After all, corn is pretty natural. Calling refined sugar natural is really marketing hype. But if this marketing hype works, as it probably will, it may lead people to believe that Sierra Mist Natural is a healthy beverage leading to greater consumption of a beverage that delivers nothing but extra calories.

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