ACE K RAISING SWEET HOPES FOR DIET SOFT DRINKS;HOECHST CELANESE INGREDIENT ALREADY BEING USED ABROAD BY COCA-COLA CO. AND PEPSI-COLA

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U.S. consumers might be faced with a raft of new diet cola and beverage options this fall if Hoechst Celanese Corp. wins Food & Drug Administration approval for a liquid form of artificial sweetener Sunett by late summer.

Soft-drink executives are anxiously awaiting the OK, since sales of most diet brands have been flat or declining the past two years and a new ingredient could pump some life into the category.

"I think it's potentially huge. There hasn't been a lot of news for diet brands to talk about and this would definitely give the category a boost," said Gary Hemphill, VP-information services at Beverage Marketing Corp., a research and consulting company.

SLOW GROWTH

Diet soft drink sales grew 1% in 1995, according to Beverage Marketing, compared with total soft-drink growth of 3.6%.

Soft-drink manufacturers, including Coca-Cola Co. and Pepsi-Cola Co., already blend Sunett, commonly known as Ace K-short for ace-sulfame potassium- with NutraSweet and other sweeteners in many international products. Pepsi-Cola uses Ace K in Pepsi Max, a new brand that has done well in Europe, and in some Canadian products. Coca-Cola uses Ace K in many countries for Coke Light, the international name for Diet Coke.

Neither company has divulged what it might do with Ace K in the U.S. Pepsi tested an artificially sweetened, medium-calorie brand called Pepsi XL in Florida last year; some observers figured that brand would eventually be made with Ace K or replaced by Pepsi Max.

COKE EXPLORES OPTIONS

Coca-Cola Chief Marketing Officer Sergio Zyman said earlier this year his company has had good experience with Ace K in other markets and will certainly explore how best to use the ingredient in the U.S.

But he also said Coca-Cola made a mistake after the introduction of Diet Coke in the 1980s by relying too much on the consumer cachet of the NutraSweet brand, which, he claimed, eventually became a commodity ingredient. He said Coca-Cola would be reluctant to aggressively hype an individual ingredient as a reason for consumers to buy Diet Coke or any other brand.

Ace K won't generate as much consumer hype as NutraSweet's introduction, Mr. Hemphill agreed, but Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola haven't forgotten how sweet that introduction was.

"NutraSweet really made diet soft drinks a viable option," Mr. Hemphill said.

Ace K is available now in the U.S. in such products as Warner-Lambert Co.'s Trident and Cinn-A-Burst chewing gums, and Kraft Foods' Jell-O gelatin mixes.

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