Wal-Mart Hosts Sierra Mist Giveaway

Pepsi Co. will be giving away millions of cans of Sierra Mist Natural this weekend at Wal-Mart (Stock Quote: WMT), offering consumers their first taste of the new drink that’s free of high-fructose corn syrup.

Sierra Mist, which competes with Coca Cola’s (Stock Quote: KO) Sprite and Dr Pepper Snapple’s (Stock Quote: DPS) 7 UP, became Sierra Mist Natural late last month when Pepsi Co. (Stock Quote: PEP) replaced the drink’s high-fructose corn syrup with real sugar. The new drink touts itself as being completely free of artificial flavors and preservatives as well, and a recent series of commercials touts its natural credentials with the slogan, “The soda nature would drink if nature drank soda.”

So should you drink this soda? Many Coke enthusiasts tout the taste advantage of the Coca-Cola sold in Mexico, which uses cane sugar instead of corn syrup, so I grabbed a can of Sierra Mist Natural to see if the taste is improved. After a quick taste test I can’t say I noticed a big improvement over the old version – or, for that matter, over the other lemon-lime sodas on the market.

The new can certainly looks nice, though. The old blue-and-green design has been replaced with a white can simply adorned with a lemon and a lime splashing into water, as if to imply that these are the only ingredients in this new, natural beverage. Of course, that’s not actually the case. The fine print reminds you that the beverage “contains no juice” – just citric acid, along with sugar, carbonated water, “natural flavors” and something called potassium citrate. While those all qualify as natural ingredients, it’s not as if you’re drinking fresh-squeezed juice here.

So why the shift? Pepsi insists that the change is in response to consumer demand, pointing to a 2009 study by the Hartman Group that found a real demand for “natural” food products. If that’s the case, though, the rest of Pepsi’s beverages haven’t gotten the memo. Pepsi and Mountain Dew, among others, still use high-fructose corn syrup, and there don’t appear to be any plans to switch to sugar on a permanent basis. I suppose that makes them “unnatural,” but I don’t expect Pepsi to add that to its branding anytime soon.

It may not matter, though. While Starbucks (Stock Quote: SBUX) and Kraft (Stock Quote: KFT) have given high-fructose corn syrup the boot in recent years due to health concerns, research has not show a definitive health advantage to using sugar instead of corn syrup. And don’t think for a second that “natural” means “healthy” – the 37 grams of sugar found in a 12-ounce can of Sierra Mist Natural is still bad for you, whether it comes from sugar cane or an ear of corn.

With that said, it can’t hurt to give the new soda a try, especially when it’s free. The samples will be available at 2,800 Wal-Mart super-centers across the country, so grab a can this weekend and then let us know what you think.

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