The recent wave of soft drinks sweetened with real sugar has traded on nostalgia, bringing us back to an age where flavour mattered and sugar was the sweetener of choice.
Then into the fray steps Pepsi Next, a special version of Pepsi made with real sugar (!) and stevia (?), a flavour of the month sweetener that only a decade ago you’d normally only find at stores catering to a hippie/yuppie/organic clientele.
To be clear, stevia – and I’ve had it in plenty of other products before – doesn’t taste as good as sugar, nor does it taste better than high-fructose corn syrup. Its main selling feature is its lack of calories, not its flavour. Regardless of its origin, I find that stevia contributes an artificial sweetener taste to drinks.
To that point, one person’s artificial sweetener is another person’s natural food product. This raises many questions about what is and isn’t a natural sweetener – why is plant-derived stevia “natural,” yet corn syrup (made from, you know, corn, which is equally, um, a plant) and plain old table sugar are judged to be abominations? We’ll leave the science questions to science writers. I’m interested in taste.
The Confusion: As if this whole stevia/sugar identity crisis wasn’t enough, Pepsi has launched products called Pepsi Next in different markets with a different sweetener composition than the Canadian version. According to this handy Wikipedia article, other markets get a Pepsi Next product made with high fructose corn syrup, acesulfame potassium, and sucralose, not sugar and stevia. Which is cray-cray, because the whole selling point of Next is the sweetener mix.
The Pitch: “Naturally sweetened.” “30% less sugar vs. the leading regular cola.”
The Look: Pepsi has chosen a lovely, alluring shade of blue for the bottle labels and other branding. The photo here doesn’t do it justice.
The Taste: Even on its own, there’s the stevia flavour in there, which is especially obvious in the aftertaste. Think oversweet (a more dense sweetness, if that makes sense) and metallic. If you can get beyond the sweetener, it’s got the usual Pepsi flavour: standard cola playbook with a bit of spice and some nice citrus. Compared side by side with regular Pepsi, the stevia taste becomes even more apparent, though it’s also abundantly clear that the Next has a lot more in common with regular Pepsi than Diet Pepsi or Pepsi Max. The question becomes the price of the compromise.
The Second Opinion: I put this to Aline, NEAROF’s resident second-guesser, and she wasn’t as quick to dismiss the Next. She couldn’t instantly pick out the Next compared to regular Pepsi, so the flavour difference might not be such a deal breaker after all.
RATINGS AND DETAILS
Cost: $2.39 for a 591 mL bottle at Safeway in Calgary.
Value for cash money: Meh. In line with the regular Pepsi’s price.
Nutrition?: Per bottle (591 mL): 170 calories, 0 grams of fat, 10 mg of sodium, 0 grams of protein. Note: This size doesn’t reflect it, but their magic number claim is 100 calories per 355 mL can. That compares to 150 calories in a 355 mL can of regular Pepsi and 0 calories in a can of Diet Pepsi.
The verdict: The “natural” sweetener pitch is a red herring. Any taste benefit gained from the real sugar is negated by the stevia twang. But it still tastes like real Pepsi with a stevia twang, while Diet Pepsi is a much larger departure from Mother Pepsi. That said, if you’re already willing to give up flavour to save on calories, why go part of the way? Will you feel satisfied by the time you drain the can? Was that 100 calories worth it? The lure of 0 calories is strong. Remember Coke C2? Remember Pepsi Edge? I predict a similar fate for Pepsi Next, at least in its Canadian formulation.
The draw for some people will be to get away from aspartame and related chemical sweetness impersonators. However, I agree that the stevia after taste will influence some people.