Heineken’s Finnish business Hartwall claims to have launched the EU’s first alcoholic beverage sweetened with stevia onto the nation’s market this month in the form of a ‘light long’ RTD.
Original Cool Grape Cranberry 4.3% is described as a light, long drink with the taste of cranberry that contains 30% less calories than an ordinary cranberry long drink: only 35 per 100ml serving.
Hartwall said that Finnish consumers who appreciated “lightness and naturalness” would enjoy the drink’s fresh and genuine cranberry flavor, with the stevia-based launch tapping consumer demand.
Produced via fermentation, the drink is sweetened with sucrose as well as steviol glycoside, although Hartwall said sugar was still needed “to create the genuine and fresh taste of a long drink”.
Quizzed whether the use of cranberry flavoring averted well-known problems with stevia relating to its aftertaste, Turkka Hirvonen, Product Manager for Hartwall Original Long Drink, and communications manager, Hanna Leppaniemi told BeverageDaily.com: "Stevia has quite special, different type of flavor that other sweeteners and it doesn’t suit all products.
"Cranberry flavor was chosen because it’s the second largest flavor segment in long drinks in Finland and especially women and young adults favor it. Product development continues and we look into other flavors as well."
Packaged in 500ml PET bottles, Cool Grape Cranberry has been available in Finnish stores from the beginning of this month.
Targeting young adults and women
Discussing target groups for the drink, Hirvonen and Leppaniemi said: "Consumers are more and more interested in well-being, we believe that young adults and women especially are interested and excited about this product. Our consumer surveys show that the product is strongly appreciated in this group.
"But of course stevia sweetened drinks, including the first stevia sweetened long drink, appeal to everyone who demand lightness and naturalness from drinks. We believe that interest in stevia sweetened products will continue to grow," they added.
In December 2011, Hartwall claimed it was the first Finnish company to introduce beverages non-alcoholic drinks with stevia.
"Our R&D [department] had been working with the sweetener for a long time and Hartwall brought stevia sweetened drinks to shops as soon as it was possible, in the beginning of December 2011. We wanted to bring stevia first into soft drinks and waters," Hirvonen and Leppaniemi said.
"As we got very warm reception by consumers we wanted to expand the range of stevia sweetened drinks and introduce the first low-alcohol beverage sweetened with steviol glycosides."
After European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) approval in April 2010, the European Commission authorized use of steviol glycosides as non-caloric food and beverage sweeteners in November 2011.
‘Surprising’ stevia launch lag in 2012
But Euromonitor International’s head of ingredients research, John Madden, told our sister site FoodNavigator.com last month that there had been a ‘surprising lag’ in EU stevia launches in 2012, although he predicted takeoff in 2013.
“No-one wanted to rush in,” Madden said. “It is not a reluctance for the major brands to launch, but they were just being careful.
“And there is ongoing concern about clean label and understanding about the product technically.”
Larger companies that had launched products in Europe had drawn on multinational expertise – especially US R&D, Madden said, since stevia extracts were first approved there four years ago.
But US success didn’t transpose directly into the EU, Madden warned: “Consumer tastes within Europe are different even from one country to another…Making sure consumers were aware of stevia was a big hurdle,” he said.
Asked if Hartwall was planning any more stevia-based launches, and how it planned to boost consumer awareness of Original Cool Grape Cranberry's low calorie benefits, Hirvonen and Leppaniemi said that stevia drinks formed a standalone category.
"We will invest even more in the visibility of the category in 2013 and will introduce new stevia-sweetened soft drinks later this spring. Cool Grape Cranberry as the first stevia sweetened alcohol drink is an innovative novelty and will definitely create interest," they added.
Hartwall made headlines of a different kind yesterday, when Heineken announced that it was beginning a strategic review of the Finnish business, but refused to comment on rumors of a potential $788m sale.