Pepsi One


© History Oasis

At the dawn of the peppy millennial age, as the exuberance of the dot-com boom and go-go nineties gave way to Y2K panic before a new century took root, the once-unassailable soft drink titan PepsiCo embarked on a daring gambit to court America’s evolving tastes with the 1998 launch of Pepsi One—a sugar-free, one-calorie cola concoction that sought to balance indulgence with a growing obsession over calorie counts.

Over the next 15 years, as public health crusades demonized soda, consumers flitted between low-fat and low-carb diet fads, and big soda rivaled big tobacco in critics’ crosshairs, Pepsi One endeavored to ride the tides with recipe tweaks and edgy ads featuring Tom Green.

But despite its best efforts the alternate cola only carved a niche market before fading into obscurity in 2015 amidst shifting trends that left icons like Coke and Pepsi themselves scrambling to adapt.

Ultimately Pepsi One failed against deeply entrenched consumer habits and distribution struggles, Pepsi One’s “just one calorie” was not enough to cement its place in the ruthlessly competitive, ever-changing American beverage landscape as the new millennium unfolded.


Pepsi One logo
Source: PepsiCo

In the autumn of 1998, as the American economy continued on its roaring path powered by the dot-com boom, the Pepsi-Cola Company sought to capitalize on the national preoccupation with counting calories and launched a new variety it dubbed "Pepsi One."

Marketed as a sugar-free cola with precisely one calorie per 8-ounce serving, Pepsi One was envisioned as a lighter alternative for consumers seeking to cut calories without fully sacrificing the indulgent, full-bodied taste of a premium cola.

"One calorie, full flavor, no compromise," boasted PepsiCo's print and television advertisements, which hit the airwaves in October 1998 mere hours after the FDA approved the key sugar substitute ace-K for use in foods and beverages nationwide.

While rival Diet Pepsi relied solely on aspartame for sweetness, Pepsi One derived its limited caloric content from a shrewd combination of aspartame and this next-generation ace-K compound.

PepsiCo's researchers discovered that by blending the two non-nutritive sweeteners in a proprietary ratio, they could emulate the flavor profile and mouthfeel of sugar-sweetened cola while shedding hundreds of calories per bottle.

The 1998 rollout of Pepsi One marked a continuation of PepsiCo's long-running efforts to meet evolving consumer preferences and tastes through scientific innovation.

Building on the legendary 'Pepsi Challenge' taste tests, the company hoped its new Pepsi One formula would woo calorie-counting cola drinkers away from Diet Pepsi and other diet sodas whose flavors were derided at the time as thin, metallic, and artificial compared to their full-sugar counterparts.

"We've cracked the code," boasted PepsiCo's CEO as Pepsi One hit shelves, predicting the drink would soon become "the fastest growing, most successful new product in Pepsi history."


portrait of Tom Green
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As Pepsi One prepared to launch in the fall of '98, PepsiCo's marketing team devised an advertising strategy as ambitious as the new drink's daring formula.

They eschewed the typical images of wholesome families and all-American pastimes prominent in Pepsi campaigns of yore, instead enlisting the services of actor and comedian Tom Green as Pepsi One's spokesperson.

The irreverent 27-year-old Canadian was then riding a swell of MTV popularity for his unique brand of shock humor and crude, unpredictable antics.

Now the fresh face of Pepsi One, Green starred in a series of TV ads clad in a gleaming white jumpsuit and extolling the virtues of "the maximum taste" of Pepsi locked up in "just one calorie."

The accompanying slogan "Just One Calorie" was stamped across all Pepsi One print ads and billboards, emphasizing the new drink's singular nutritional advantage.

PepsiCo hoped Green's over-the-top personality and countercultural appeal would lend Pepsi One a veneer of youthful edginess fitting for the dawn of the millennial age.

"We're redefining cola for the next generation," said a Pepsi executive.

Early focus groups responded positively to Green's manic energy, and by pairing his broad humor with the drink's "one calorie" hook, Pepsi aimed to reach young people increasingly fixated on body image and low-calorie products.

It was a daring gamble that set Pepsi One apart from its staid rival Diet Coke, still featuring saccharine smiles and wholesome family tables in its own advertising.


a packet of sucralose
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As the low-carb craze swept the nation in the early 2000s, PepsiCo found slumping sales for Pepsi One troubling. Despite a memorably unconventional ad campaign, the drink had failed to make major inroads with consumers since its 1998 debut.

Privately, PepsiCo officials conceded that Pepsi One's taste profile was thinner and less bold than full-sugar colas like regular Pepsi.

Seeking to bolster Pepsi One's flavor, food scientists at PepsiCo turned to an emerging non-nutritive sweetener called Splenda, the brand name for sucralose.

Approved by the FDA in 1998, sucralose offered a sugar-like taste and versatility that earlier artificial sweeteners had lacked.

PepsiCo reformulated its Pepsi One recipe in early 2005 to replace some of the aspartame with sucralose, tweaking the formula to enhance flavor and more closely mimic the full, rounded taste of sugar-sweetened cola.

As the reformulated cans and bottles hit shelves in March 2005, PepsiCo touted the switch to "Splenda Brand Sweetener" in a major new marketing push seeking to redefine Pepsi One as a low-calorie cola that truly captured the full flavor profile Pepsi drinkers had come to expect.

"Don't compromise on taste - get the bold, full flavor you want with only one calorie," announced new Pepsi One ads.

Early results proved promising, with sales increasing by double digits over the summer of 2005 as some consumers returned to the Pepsi One fold enticed by its improved taste.

For PepsiCo, staying steps ahead of the latest sweetener science was critical to keep Pepsi One competitive in a rapidly evolving industry.


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Pepsi One's embattled fortunes took another hit in early 2014 when the Center for Environmental Health announced that independent laboratory testing had revealed alarming levels of the compound 4-methylimidazole (4-MeI) in Pepsi One and its sister product Diet Pepsi Max.

Classified as a potential human carcinogen, 4-MeI is a chemical byproduct that can form in trace amounts when certain caramel colors are manufactured.

While not added intentionally, it had been detected in samples of various soft drinks at amounts over the legally mandated threshold in the state of California.

The ensuing March 2014 headlines sparked a public relations crisis for PepsiCo, which scrambled to assure consumers while conducting its own damage control tests on 4-MeI in Pepsi One and other product lines.

As the company tinkered with tweaking its caramel coloring sourcing and production methods, Pepsi One was hit by declining sales in 2014 as wary customers instead reached for 4-MeI-free soda alternatives until the issue was resolved.

The 4-MeI fiasco, which impacted the entire soft drink industry, was an embarrassing setback for Pepsi One. It had only just begun recovering thanks to its 2005 reformulation before being dragged back into negative headlines that raised questions about the drink's safety.

The one-calorie cola had already faced an uphill climb in the marketplace, and the 4-MeI debacle made resuscitation even more challenging heading into 2015.


Pepsi delivery truck
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By mid-2015, after over 15 years on the market, Pepsi One remained a niche product with minimal market share compared to beverage behemoths like regular Pepsi and Diet Pepsi.

PepsiCo had tinkered with its formula, its advertising, and even its logos, but consumer enthusiasm for the one-calorie cola never materialized on a major scale.

Its distribution paled in comparison to other Pepsi varieties—it was largely confined to select metro regions rather than nationwide saturation.  

So that July, while the media buzzed about Diet Pepsi dropping aspartame for sucralose in its high-profile formula makeover, quietly and without fanfare PepsiCo discontinued Pepsi One.

The also-ran diet cola had simply failed to ever gain a foothold in the brutal beverage arena—its limited penetration amid Major distribution struggles had thwarted Pepsi One's potential for too long.

"We regularly evaluate our product portfolio to find efficiencies, and we have decided to remove Pepsi One from the marketplace," announced a terse mid-summer press release from PepsiCo.

And with that unceremonious end for the ambitiously launched, oft-tweaked soda that once carried hopes of revolutionizing the cola wars, Pepsi One faded into history as PepsiCo directed resources toward its more successful mass-market brands.

Though it carved a small niche, Pepsi One's "Just One Calorie" ultimately proved no match for the full flavor and sweeping popularity of the leading colas its set out to dethrone.


Pepsi One
© History Oasis

As historians analyze Pepsi One's underwhelming performance before its discontinuation in 2015, several key factors emerge that hampered its success.

Foremost was the dominant market position of Diet Pepsi, Pepsi One's same-company rival for calorie-conscious cola drinkers.

With Diet Pepsi enjoying far wider brand recognition and distribution, Pepsi One struggled from the outset to stand apart. Its marketing as a one-calorie alternative cola appealed to some, but failed to shift enough taste preferences away from the deep-rooted Diet Pepsi.

Ironically, Diet Pepsi's major formula and branding overhaul in 2015 likely proved the final nail for the declining Pepsi One.

As Diet Pepsi grabbed headlines for replacing aspartame with Splenda, attention shifted away from Pepsi One's own sucralose-enhanced 2005 recipe refinement.

The re-energizing of its chief competitor further consigned Pepsi One to also-ran status, accelerating PepsiCo's decision to finally retire the brand months later due to persistently low sales and insufficient consumer buzz.

Most glaringly, Pepsi One's distribution and availability never matched its mass-market competitors.

Consumers cited convenience as a key factor in beverage choice, and Pepsi One's niche penetration in just select regions meant many shoppers simply never saw it on store shelves.

Without nationwide distribution building familiarity and demand, Pepsi One's potential consumer base remained limited—a core strategic factor that hampered its performance from launch to eventual discontinuation.