NEW YORK (AP) — When it comes to the calories in diet soda, Dr Pepper thinks 10 is the new zero.

Starting next month, the country's No. 3 soft drink company plans to roll out 10-calorie versions of five of its biggest soda brands: 7-Up, Sunkist, Canada Dry, RC Cola and A&W Root Beer. The drinks are an extension of Dr Pepper Ten, which was launched last year as a better-tasting alternative for men who don't like the image or taste of diet soda.

But the new 10-calories sodas are being marketed to both men and women.

Unlike traditional diet sodas that use only artificial sweeteners and have zero calories, Dr Pepper Snapple Group Inc. says its 10-calorie sweetener mix has just enough high-fructose corn syrup to overcome any reservations people might have about the weak or cloying taste of diet drinks. And by taking away most the calories — a can of regular typically has about 150 calories — the company is washing away much of the guilt.

Dr Pepper isn't alone in trying to redefine the image of diet soda. With soda frequently blamed for fueling obesity rates, executives at Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo Inc. are also convinced that producing better-tasting diet sodas can reverse a steady decline in overall soda consumption that began in 1998. That's despite the growing number of options soft drinks are competing with in the beverage aisle, such as flavored waters, sports drinks and teas.

Larry Young, CEO of Plano, Texas-based Dr Pepper Snapple Group, is confident the new lineup of 10-calories drinks can win back soda drinkers who quit or cut back to reduce their calorie intakes. Young noted that Dr Pepper Ten has already done the same since its launch last year.

The drinks will hit shelves nationwide at select outlets in January, and the company says one of its biggest ever national ad campaigns will follow in March. Rather than singling out men, the ads for the new drinks will target both sexes and play off the theme of "Get Both."

One TV ad shows a couple who can't agree on anything until discovering 7-Up with 10 calories. They're then portrayed in a variety of scenarios showing how they compromise; sitting in a pick-up truck that is hot pink, watching a cooking TV show that's interrupted by a football player barging through the set and drinking champagne by the fireplace while grilling a giant T-bone steak. At the end of the commercial, their cat barks.

Already, Dr Pepper says about 30 percent of its sales come from diet and lower- calorie soda and "better-for-you" drinks such as juices and water. Young said he sees that figure reaching between 40 to 50 percent in coming years.

The big question mark for the broader industry is whether a new generation of diet drinks can stem overall soda declines and ultimately boost consumption again.

At a Beverage Digest industry conference last week, PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi said she thinks a next wave of diet sodas will use a variety of sweeteners that have a range of calories, rather than all conforming to a single sweetener with zero calories as in the past.

Earlier this year, for example, PepsiCo introduced a mid-calorie version of its flagship soda called Pepsi Next that reduces the amount of high-fructose corn syrup by using artificial sweeteners. Although the drink hasn't made a big splash, Nooyi said its modest performance already makes it a good "line extension" for the brand.

Coca-Cola Co., meanwhile, has been more noncommittal about mid-calorie sodas. Sandy Douglas, who heads Coca-Cola's North America business, said at the same conference that the company didn't see the category generating "a tremendous amount of share and growth."

But the Atlanta-based company has been testing mid-calorie versions of its Sprite and Fanta that uses natural sweeteners to gauge interest.

As for the new lineup of 10-calorie drinks, which were tested in select markets this year, Dr Pepper CEO Young said he's aware that the industry doesn't have a lot of patience in waiting to see whether new drinks will work. But he said Dr Pepper plans to stick by its new drinks over the long haul.

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Follow Candice Choi at www.twitter.com/candicechoi

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