PepsiCo rolls out cola with stevia in Australia

NEW YORK (AP) -- PepsiCo Inc. is launching a reduced-calorie soda in Australia that uses stevia, the first time the beverage maker is using the natural sweetener in its namesake cola.

The Purchase, N.Y.-based company says the drink, called Pepsi Next, is also sweetened with sugar and has 30 percent fewer calories than regular.

The rollout follows the launch of Pepsi Next in the U.S. earlier this year. That version has about half as many calories of regular at 60 calories per can, but uses a mix of artificial sweeteners and high fructose corn syrup.

Although there are no set plans yet, Pepsi says the idea is to eventually expand Pepsi Next to other countries. It says, however, it has no plans to use stevia in Pepsi Next in the U.S.

Pepsi Next was developed to win back lapsed soda drinkers who want to cut back on calories but don't like the taste of diet soda. The Coca-Cola Co. this summer also began testing reduced-calorie versions of its Sprite and Fanta that use a mix of sugar and natural sweeteners such as stevia, which is derived from a South American shrub.

The moves by Coke and Pepsi come as per capita soda consumption in the U.S. has declined over the years. Now the companies are trying to come up with formulas that address concerns about calories and artificial sweeteners, without sacrificing taste.

The challenge is that zero-calorie natural sweeteners like stevia often have a bitter aftertaste that's difficult to mask in sodas.

It's not the first time the companies have taken a stab at mid-calorie sodas. In 2001, Coke rolled out "C2" and Pepsi followed a few years later with "Pepsi Edge," both of which had about half the calories of regular. They were taken off the market by 2006 because of poor sales.

Coca-Cola, based in Atlanta, also introduced a version of Sprite with stevia in the U.S. about four years ago. But that drink has since been discontinued as well.

Earlier this year, Coca-Cola introduced Sprite with stevia in France following its rollout of Fanta with stevia in 2010. Both those drinks are still on the market. The company does not offer its flagship soda with stevia anywhere in the world.

Both Coke and Pepsi use stevia in other U.S. beverages, such as juices and teas.

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