Asian Fruit To Save The Diet Beverage Sector?

Monk fruit could be the ingredient soda makers have sought for decades - a natural product with great taste and no calories.

Some experts think the fuzzy green fruit called monk fruit, which ripens to the size of an apple, could be the ingredient soda makers have sought for decades: a natural product with great taste and no calories. The obscure melon once cultivated by Buddhist monks in China to sweeten tea could give the $8-billion US diet soda industry a shot at winning back consumers concerned about artificial ingredients.

When "someone figures this out and gets a taste that is low-calorie and natural, it could really be a silver bullet that catapults that company ahead," said Ali Dibadj, an analyst at Bernstein who follows the soft drink industry.

Soft drink makers are increasingly desperate for just such a miracle ingredient. Once a booming sector, diet soda has become a laggard. In the United States, consumption fell about 7 percent this year and could shrink by 20 percent through 2020, according to Nielsen data. Consumers, increasingly wary of the health risks of artificial sweeteners, are ditching diet sodas for juices, teas and naturally sweetened lemonades, according to a recent Wells Fargo analysis.

Beverage companies have struggled to hold on to customers amid fears about the safety of FDA-approved aspartame, which has sweetened diet soda for 30 years. The aspartame debate continues to rage on the Internet, even though the American Beverage Association says the artificial sweetener is safe for consumption. 

Five years ago stevia, a low-calorie sweetener made from the leaves of a Paraguayan plant, was heralded as an ideal natural sweetener. But it has had only limited success in the marketplace. Coca-Cola Co uses stevia in 45 products in 15 countries, including in Coke Life, a low-calorie alternative available in Chile and Argentina. PepsiCo uses stevia in Pepsi NEXT, a low-calorie drink it sells in Australia and France. But customers have complained that stevia's bitter aftertaste alters the sodas' flavors.

Now, some beverage manufacturers are pinning their hopes on monk fruit, which is already used in protein shakes, snack bars and brownies.

This week, Zevia, a premium-brand company based in Culver City, California, introduced a new recipe for its no-calorie sodas sweetened with a blend of monk fruit and stevia. The company's drinks, which sell in 12-ounce cans for about $1 each, were previously sweetened exclusively with stevia, which gave it a bitter kick.

"We feel like we've really cracked the code," said Paddy Spence, chief executive officer of Zevia, which sells its naturally sweetened no-calorie soft drinks at about 16,000 high-end grocery stores in the United States. "Using the two side by side, we were able to get a higher level of sweetness without the bitterness."

Monk fruit has been consumed for centuries in southern China, especially by the Cantonese, but in recent years it has become popular across the country, where it is marketed in dried form and used to flavor soups and tea, and as a remedy for sore throats. One gram of the fruit extract replaces eight teaspoons of sugar, allowing consumers to significantly reduce their calorie intake, according to Laura Jones, a global food science analyst at Mintel, a food and drink research firm.

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