US develops a taste for caffeine-free colas

Seven-Up says it ''never had it, never will.'' To show its commitment, the company is test marketing a new cola - which won't have it either.

Nor, starting next week, will a new version of Pepsi-Cola, even as ads remind customers that the taste will still be ''positively Pepsi.''

What are two of America's top four soft drink companies steering clear of? The psychoactive drug caffeine, an ingredient in about 70 percent of soft drinks sold in the United States. Most of these are colas and ''pepper'' drinks, although some noncola brands such as ''Mello Yello,'' ''Mountain Dew,'' and (until this year) ''Sunkist'' actually contain as much or more of the drug.

So far this year:

* Sunkist has quietly removed caffeine as an ingredient in its sugared orange soda.

* Seven-Up Company of St. Louis, already touting the lack of caffeine in its lemon-lime flavored soda, has begun test marketing a caffeine-free cola called ''Like.''

* PepsiCo Inc. will test market regular and sugar-free versions of ''Pepsi Free'' in eight cities beginning Aug. 2. (The sugar-free cola will contain no caffeine. The fructose (sugar)-sweetened version will have a trace amount to comply with the Food and Drug Administration's ''Standard of Identity,'' which requires caffeine as an ingredient in any cola. ''Diet'' drinks are exempted.)

For Bambi Batts Young, who has researched caffeine in her job at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) in Washington, D.C., these moves are ''clearly encouraging signs.'' CSPI, says Dr. Young, is concerned about the presence of the drug in a product consumed in large amounts by children. The CSPI, she says, feels caffeine is ''not appropriate'' in soft drinks. ''We don't allow any other drugs in foods we give to children,'' she points out.

US Department of Agriculture figures for 1977 showed that 40 percent of small children one to two years of age consume soft drinks. The figure rises to 50 percent in the six-to-eight-year-old bracket and peaks at nearly 60 percent of teen-age youths.

Because of their smaller size, she says, children need a smaller dose of caffeine than adults to manifest its effects, said to include jitteriness, hand quiver, and sleeplessness. In heavy use (two to three 12-ounce cans of caffeinated soda per day for a five-year-old) medical opinion considers the drug capable of creating a chemical dependency - with resulting withdrawal symptoms.

Soft-drink companies traditionally have claimed that caffeine is added as a flavor-enhancer, not as a stimulant. But CSPI's Young notes that Sunkist's decision to drop the additive shows that ''there is no obvious consumer preference for caffeine.'' A blind taste test conducted by the Consumers Union last year concluded that most of the participants couldn't detect a flavor difference in orange soda with and without caffeine.

Atlanta's Royal Crown Cola, a pioneer in caffeine-free soft drinks, introduced ''RC100'' in April 1980. The industry, says Royal Crown vice-president Arnold Belasco, ''said caffeine is a bittering agent, said it was integral'' to their formulas. ''But our research showed a real interest in (the) caffeine (issue).'' Sales of RC100, which industry analysts estimated at 4 million cases in 1980, are expected to hit 30 million to 40 million cases this year.

RC100, like its new competitors, displays its caffeine-free status on each can in large letters. Belasco is confident this message is winning sales. ''If you tell a mother, 'Here's Cola A and Cola B. One has caffeine, the other doesn't,' which one do you think she'll pick?''

With Americans buying an average of 264 cans of cola or pepper drinks per person in 1979, the sales potential is enormous. ''We haven't determined just how big the market (for no-caffeine Pepsi) might be,'' says PepsiCo spokeswoman Rebecca Goeke. Sales of specialized drinks such as decaffeinated coffee, diet soft drinks, and light beer have boomed, she says, and a no-caffeine cola may be a way to expand the market by ''segmenting'' it.

Pepsi will be taking a ''positive approach'' in its advertising, she says, with ''absolutely'' no health claims mentioned. ''We will emphasize taste,'' she says. If the no-caffeine cola does well in its testing, ''which we expect,'' she adds, ''we're only 18 months from full distribution.''

Industry leader Coca-Cola, meanwhile, is keeping its plans bottled up. ''We will continue to monitor the marketplace,'' says the company's latest statement, ''and we will enter the caffeine-free market if and when appropriate.''

Coca-Cola announced a new diet cola, Diet Coke, in early July. Taking the caffeine out of the company's current diet drink, Tab, is ''just one of the options open to us,'' Coca-Cola president Brian G. Dyson has said.

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