In a recent U.S. consumer survey, Jefferies analysts found that "health concerns, particularly around artificial sweeteners continue to plague the U.S. diet carbonated soft drinks industry."
However, 45 percent of those drinking less diet soft drinks suggested they would possibly consume more "if they were healthier" and 30 percent said they would do so "if they were made with a natural sweetener like stevia." However, 34 percent of those drinking less suggested nothing would get them to boost their consumption.
Consumers also will need to be convinced that the taste is worth the calories in these so-called midcalorie beverages.
Pepsi thinks it's achieved that.
"It's taken us three years to get to a place we feel good about," Lowden said about the development process. "No one is willing to give up on taste. Taste is king."
But calorie-conscious consumers have found the concept of midcalorie drinks tough to swallow in the past. In 2004, when sucralose, or Splenda, was the hot sugar alternative, Coke and Pepsi launched the short-lived brands, C2 and Pepsi Edge. Pepsi Next also is a midcalorie drink, but unlike True, it contains artificial sweeteners in the U.S. market.
"When it comes to soda, people want either the taste of a full-sugar product and are willing to accept 140 calories per can, or they want a zero-calorie solution and are open to a product that doesn't taste exactly like a full-sugar soda. There really isn't much in between," said Paddy Spence, CEO of Zevia, which makes naturally sweetened, zero- and low-calorie sodas using stevia.
Spence, formerly head of sales and marketing for Kashi, said his company adds monk fruit, another zero-calorie natural sweetener to its mix "to boost sweetness without adding aftertaste."
According to John Sicher, CEO of Beverage Digest, it's too early to tell whether stevia-based drinks will be the way forward.
"I think it will take three to five years to see how much better the [bigger] beverage companies will get working with stevia," Sicher said. "I think consumers will go for a sweetener that is natural, low and zero calories and tastes close to sugar, but the industry is not there yet."