Pepsi has rolled out a sugar-sweetened beverage that uses "all natural" elements. Offered in a glass 12-oz. bottle and featuring just 11 ingredients, is Pepsi Natural all it's cracked up to be? Well, let's find out!
The story behind Pepsi Natural seems to be an interesting — yet long-awaited — one of hopes for a non-high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) beverage. With other brands like Jones Soda making the jump to pure cane sugar a few years back, many wondered if Coke or Pepsi would try the same in some capacity. As we uncovered in our preview of Pepsi Natural, a trademark on the name was first filed back in December 2006. But nothing resulted. We saw Pepsi Raw rolled out in the United Kingdom and Pepsi Retro in Mexico, but it wasn't until late 2008, when additional trademark applications were filed regarding the visual design of Pepsi Natural, that we started to see some realistic movement towards this drink.
Oh, and just between you and me, back in 2006-7 there was also talk about another "sugar" beverage being delivered from Pepsi. Trademarks for the phrases Sierra Mist Essence and Sierra Mist Natural were filed December 18, 2006, with updates in status September 24, 2008. Might we see a sugar-sweetened Sierra Mist eventually? I bet sales of Pepsi Natural will answer that question. Speaking of which, we should get back to the review…
While underground buzz had been building for a few months here in 2009, Pepsi officially announced Pepsi Natural via a press release on March 5. They also officially confirmed the existence of Pepsi Throwback and Mountain Dew Throwback, both of which are limited-edition products arriving on April 20. Here's the official spin:
An all-new premium cola, Pepsi Natural is made with all-natural ingredients, including lightly sparkling water, natural sugar, natural caramel and kola nut extract. The amber-hued cola gets its color from natural caramel and natural apple extract. From the amount of bubbles to the foam that rises to the top of beverage when it's poured, Pepsi Natural offers a brand-new cola experience.
Pepsi Natural is packaged in a sleek 12-oz. glass bottle and is available in single-serve and 4-packs initially in the premium and/or natural food aisles of retail outlets in the following ten regional markets; Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Las Vegas and New York.
I'm fortunate to live in one of those regional markets (Chicago), so my wife & I were able to pick up a 4-pack of Pepsi Natural at a local Target.
First of all, a couple clarifications that we noted in our preview of Pepsi Natural after talking with a representative from Pepsi:
- "Natural Sugar" is defined as a blend of cane sugar & beet sugar
- Pepsi Natural is NOT Kosher
- NOT a limited edition item like Pepsi Throwback
- Packaging will only be in 12 oz. glass bottles, individually or via 4-pack
- Pepsi Natural is similar, but not the same as the UK's Pepsi Raw
Unlike Pepsi Throwback and Mountain Dew Throwback, which are obviously aimed at a mainstream audience, the positioning of Pepsi Natural seems to be that of a more "premium" offering. Thus why there isn't a national rollout initially, why it's found in select locations — including health/natural food stores, and why the pricepoint is rather high for just 4 bottles that are each 12 oz.
This isn't your everyday Pepsi; it's more for your beverage connoisseur or maybe someone who doesn't partake of carbonated soft drinks that often. It's clearly going after those who are riding the "natural" food bandwagon, which is a very hot trend these days. And with all the backlash that HFCS has received in the news, the mention of a natural sugar soft drink can have its appeal to certain demographics.
The Pepsi Natural that I picked up came in a 4-pack; a light tan colored cardboard holder that resembled the "dark brown ovals configured in a leaf pattern" described in the trademark filing that we noted in our preview of Pepsi Natural. It's a monochromatic design, with different shades of tan denoting the new Pepsi logo. The same Pepsi font is used to spell the word "Natural" next to the leaf pattern. Towards the bottom of the 4-pack packaging, a callout for "All Natural Cola" is made, along with a showcase of 3 ingredients: "Sparkling water, sugar, kola nut extract". The opposite side of the 4-pack contains the same design, while one side panel lists the Nutritional Facts and UPC, while the other is completely blank.
Let's move on to the design of the 12 oz. glass bottles. First of all, let me just say that these are a thing of beauty. They actually contrast quite well against the more distinctly-known Coke "contour" bottle by providing a slick, contemporary design that reflects the product well. Clear glass is used, with a twist off cap that the pressure-fit crown style. While it does say "Twist Off" with arrows and a nice Pepsi logo, I found it rather hard to do that without shredding my hands. Grab a towel or a rubber jar lid gripper.
The glass is a sleek design with an embossed new Pepsi logo in the top 1/3 near the neck. The only other notable mark is a curious glass indentation on the lower backside of the bottle. Whether this is there for your finger in an ergonomic way or just some designer gone crazy, I'll never know.
A clear sticker label sits on the front lower 1/3 of the bottle with tan-colored Pepsi logo and "Natural" typeface. Like the typography on the 4-pack box, the phrase "All Natural Cola" and mention of "Sparking water, sugar, kola nut extract" is noted. Finally, the bottle size (12 fl oz. / 355 mL) finishes the label.
Rotate the bottle 180 degrees and you'll find a similar clear sticker on the back. Again with tan writing you'll find the new Pepsi logo, the "Natural" name, the phrase "All Natural Cola" and a box containing the Nutrition Facts. Those interested in what those Facts contain, here you go:
Serving Size: 1 Bottle
Amount Per Serving:
Calories – 150
Total Fat – 0 g (0% DV)
Sodium – 35 mg (1% DV)
Total Carbohydrates – 39 g (13% DV)
Sugars – 38 g
Protein – 0 g
Not a significant source of other nutrients. Percent Daily Values (DV) are based on a 2,000 calorie diet
Incidentally, while browsing the Pepsi Product Facts website, I came across this little advertisement for Pepsi Natural that may hint at the marketing direction we'll see with this product:
The ingredient list is also included on the back of the bottle:
Sparkling water, sugar, natural apple extract (color), carmel color, citric acid, caffeine, acacia gum, tartaric acid, lactic acid, natural flavor, kola nut extract.
As we noted in our preview of Pepsi Natural, this product is very similar to the UK's Pepsi Raw when you look at the ingredient breakdown, but not identical. Pepsi also officially confirmed that "the formulas for Pepsi Natural and Pepsi Raw are similar but not the same."
Wrapping up the back label is the caffeine content (38 mg per 12 oz.), Pepsi's website address and toll free phone number, trademark disclaimers, deposit info, recycling logo, and a UPC barcode. Speaking of caffeine content, it breaks down to 3.2 mg/oz., which puts it on par with HFCS-sweetened Pepsi (also 3.2 mg/oz.). By comparison, a drink like Mountain Dew contains 4.5 mg/oz.
Also when compared to the UK's Pepsi Raw, Pepsi Natural has 150 calories per serving (12 oz bottle). A 250 ml can of Pepsi Raw claims 100 kJ per 100 ml serving. Doing the math and fun conversion from metric, it would seem that Pepsi Raw breaks down to 11.86 calories/oz., while Pepsi Natural has 12.5 calories/oz. So they are pretty close, but not exactly the same when it comes to calories.
Enough about the marketing and packaging design. What about the taste?
Upon opening the bottle, you are greeted with a different type of aroma, not typically associated with Pepsi. This one is nuttier and somewhat licorice-influenced. There are also less bubbles to tickle your nose and it's obvious the acidicness is way down. Personally, the scent threw me off quite a bit.
The first couple sips produced a very smooth beverage, with quite a mellow taste when compared to flagship Pepsi. It's a subdued experience packed with a certain nuttiness (probably associated with the kola nut). The reduction in carbonation might lead one to believe that it was somewhat flatter tasting. This drink has far less bite than HFCS Pepsi, but does have a small bit of bitterness. The smoothness of the drink experience continues into the aftertaste, which is clean and free of any syrup flavor lingering on your tongue.
The flavor experience was definitely on par with Red Bull Simply Cola, which also shared a certain "nutty" taste. However, I think I preferred the distinct flavor attributes found in the Red Bull product when compared to Pepsi Natural. That's not to say that Natural is bad; just that it was rather plain. In fact, the reduction in sweetness and bite almost brings the Pepsi Natural formula into a similar ballpark as Coca-Cola Classic as far as composition and experience. (I know that's sacrilege, but it was suggested by those with whom I shared this drink!) Back to the smell of Pepsi Natural, my nose is rather sensitive and I think the odd scent somewhat influenced what I thought of the taste of the drink. Your experience may vary.
While writing this review, I thought I would take the opportunity to compare Pepsi Natural against not only traditional high fructose corn syrup-sweetened Pepsi, but also Kosher for Passover Pepsi. For example, one thing I noticed when I reviewed products like Kosher Coke and Mexican Coke against their HFCS incarnations is that the bubbles formed when poured are of different shapes. I was curious if I'd see the same results from Pepsi Natural.
Sure enough, Pepsi Natural had small, compact bubbles. This denseness and "bubble distribution" was very similar in appearance to that of Kosher Pepsi. In contrast, HFCS Pepsi had larger bubbles scattered throughout the top of the drink "film". I look forward to seeing what sort of bubbles we'll be getting with Pepsi Throwback. But what do the bubbles have to do with the experience? Well, as I've noted before, the traditional Pepsi flavor is far more carbonated and acidic, almost masking the flavor with this distraction. Pepsi Natural has more of a pure taste.
Colorwise, Pepsi Natural is far lighter in tone than HFCS Pepsi. It really doesn't even look like the same beverage. It shares an appearance like that found in iced tea, which may create the mental impression that this has "less stuff in it" and is nothing more than sweetened water, thus inadvertently presenting a healthier disposition. Or maybe it's just light because of the "natural apple extract" and "caramel color" used. I'll let you figure out why you think it's lighter!
When comparing Pepsi Natural against HFCS Pepsi, it's very much like testing two separate drinks entirely. While the flavor profile of Pepsi Natural is good, I don't think it's very similar to that of regular Pepsi. I think you'll see better comparisons when we have HFCS Pepsi going up against Pepsi Throwback. But I don't think it's fair to really put Natural in the "this tastes like watered down Pepsi" boat or whatever, because frankly, it's a completely different formula and aside from the name, is its own thing.
Overall, it's encouraging to see a product like Pepsi Natural hit the marketplace, even if it is in limited distribution and at a premium price. There's already room for a quality soft drink with great ingredients, as folks like Jones and Boylan have proven on a smaller scale. And for once, we don't have to wait for Passover to hit each year to sample some of our favorites minus high fructose corn syrup. Pepsi Natural has a unique, satisfying taste that goes against your perceptions of what it's supposed to taste — or even smell — like. It's most likely destined to be a highly niche product, but it's a quality niche product, and that effort is appreciated. Popping open a cold Pepsi Natural on a hot day can be a satisfying and rewarding experience!