As Coke starts to panic in the face of opposition to its classic Coca-Cola product, planning to release Diet Coke in all of the 206 countries where regular Coke is sold, Pepsi is quietly beginning to creep back onto the scene, sensing an opportunity. Despite being created and developed in 1893, the brand has usually found itself playing second fiddle to the Coca-Cola Company, even going bankrupt in 1931 before enjoying a resurgence five years later. Now it’s seeking to outdo its biggest cola rivals with the creation of Pepsi Next, which was released in March 2012, but is only now beginning to hit mainland Europe a year later. Commuter-heavy hotspots are therefore currently being targeted with free mini-cans of its latest innovation, and discount vouchers for more of the same. The product claims to deliver all of the cola taste we love, with less sugar. Can it really be the future of the soft-drinks market?

This definitely seems like a tangible possibility: with growing animosity towards artificial sweetener aspartame, Pepsi Next’s secret ingredient is a different, plant-based sweetener named stevia, which so far has not been widely adopted by the soft drinks market. In this respect it is truly an innovative product from a Western point of view (unlike in Japan, where stevia has been widely used as a sweetener for many years), as stevia was only approved for use in the EU in 2011. And Pepsi isn’t the only one in on the act: the Coca-Cola Company has already added the sweetener to Sprite, and Vitamin Water. The bulk of studies have shown that stevia has no harmful effects, and the World Health Organization has also pronounced it non-toxic and non-carcinogenic. Some research has also demonstrated that it could even benefit sufferers of diabetes.

However, there are also some question marks over the future of Pepsi’s stevia-sweetened drink. Pepsi Next is the progeny of Pepsi Edge, the company’s first mid-calorie cola, which was discontinued after only two years. Why was it so unpopular? One theory could run as follows: its sweetener was Splenda, which has suffered from marketing problems in various countries. Splenda is also a brand of sucralose, which, while found to be safe in certain studies, has also attracted controversy in the midst of experts calling the validity of the studies into question. People are also wary of sweeteners in general, especially following the negative press received by aspartame, and some reports have already shown a link between stevia and blood pressure. Naturally, too, due to it being the new kid on the block, stevia is not yet widely-used in soft drinks. In addition to the examples already given, only the US seems to have really latched on to it for this purpose. One example of a brand there that is doing this is Zevia. It’s popular in the US and Canada, but not yet available in Europe – although it retails in branches of Whole Foods Market, which is already gaining momentum in the UK, so watch this space! The brands using it that we would recognise in the UK – Powerade and Minute Maid – haven’t specifically released those particular products in Europe. All of this perhaps indicates that stevia’s appeal may be very culturally specific to the US and Canada. But then again, aspartame has managed to succeed in Europe, so what’s to say that stevia will not?

But what of the taste? I’m a sucker for anything free, so have benefited from 2 free mini-cans of this stuff so far (a dizzying total of about 200ml). While some testers report that they can detect an aftertaste of the sweetener, I personally did not, and would even go as far as to say that Pepsi Next tastes quite nice. However, I personally would probably never purchase it. Why? Unlike many people, I actually like the taste of normal diet fizzy drinks that contain no calories at all, and therefore face a dilemma. Would I rather consume diet drinks with zero calories, and therefore have no nutritional value thanks to the use of artificial sweeteners? Or would I rather consume drinks like Pepsi Next, which do have a few calories in them thanks to natural sweeteners, and therefore a modicum of nutritional value?

It’s clear that I still need to think about this one some more. What Pepsi’s latest marketing campaign has done, however, is to make me more aware of the brand in general, and more likely to purchase their products in general when given a straight choice between them and Coca-Cola, purely out of a desire to champion the underdog. Pepsi’s market share has declined rapidly over the past few years, bolstered only by its acquisitions of other products (such as Frito’s). In future, I’ll be more likely to look out for them and choose them instead of Coke. Its use of stevia may even make me look again at my habit of choosing bargain supermarket diet colas – which, of course, continue to sweeten using aspartame.