- Coca-Cola created a stevia-sweetened soda that not only has no sugar and zero calories, but lacks the aftertaste prevalent in many products containing the ingredient, the company said at its investor day.
- The company looked at dozens of molecules in the stevia plant to find ones that are the sweetest with no bitterness or aftertaste. Executives said they have identified the best one, which is in the new soda.
- Coca-Cola said the new product will be introduced in a small market outside of the U.S. in the first half of 2018. Full commercialization is still a few years away because the company has to get a large-enough quantify of the stevia glycoside to produce the drink in more markets. The glycoside "gives us a sweetness profile that we think is going to be well accepted by consumers in the zero-sugar context," Robert Long, Coca-Cola's chief innovation officer, told reporters.
Coca-Cola and other soda makers have been on a quest to develop a drink that doesn't use sugar to sweeten the product. The urge to uncover an alternative sweetener is not surprising as more consumers leave soda because of its sugar content and its role in contributing to health conditions such as obesity. The new Nutrition Facts label, which is likely required to be on most food and beverage products by 2020, also will list the amount of sugar added to an item. Higher-potency sweeteners like stevia will make products' labels look somewhat better for consumers' health.
While companies such as Coca-Cola have expanded their beverage lineup to include more teas, waters, coffees and other drinks viewed by shoppers as healthier, the fact remains that soda still makes up much of their sales —in Coke's case about 70% — and they are reticent about losing more consumers.
The challenge has been finding a sweetener that can replace sugar in both the taste and texture it brings to the product. One potential solution was aspartame, but the public has largely stopped drinking diet soda because of concerns over the health impact of the artificial ingredient. Coca-Cola switched back to sugar in Vitaminwater after customers took to social media to complain about its new sugar-stevia blend. It also introduced Coca-Cola Life with stevia, but it also contained sugar and an aftertaste that many consumers didn't like.
"This one, we think, has hit the mark," Long said. "One of our bigger opportunities is how do we reduce sugar, and one pillar for that is to make our zero-sugar products more appealing."
PepsiCo has struggled to find a suitable replacement, too. Indra Nooyi, PepsiCo's CEO, said at the Beverage Forum in April that there are plenty of all-natural, zero-calorie sweeteners already available, but many of the products already in the marketplace — most notably in soda — “don’t taste that great.”
With many natural sweeteners vying for market dominance, stevia has a lot in its favor. As far as its chemical composition, it has few calories and no carbohydrates. It's also 30 to 40 times sweeter than sugar, meaning a little goes a long way.
As Coca-Cola has shown, despite stevia's early challenges, food and beverage companies haven't given up on the plant as they desperately strive to find a replacement for sugar in their drinks. Stevia has many different glycosides — the chemical compounds that give the plant its sweetness. According to Beverage Daily, Coca-Cola has worked with stevia company PureCircle on a joint development and supply agreement for its patented Rebaudioside M glycoside — also known as Reb M.
This molecule was developed for use in beverages by PureCircle, which has been a leader in stevia research. The company, which holds more than 60 stevia-related patents, announced last month that it finished sequencing the plant's genome in partnership with KeyGene. This new research provides ingredient developers with a deeper understanding of the plant's glycosides and where they can be best used.
Coca-Cola executives stressed the new reality is that the public is looking for ways to curtail their sugar consumption and companies need to find a way to respond. In addition to Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, a growing roster of food companies are reformulating products or launching new ones using stevia, including DanoneWave, Kraft Heinz, Nestle and Unilever.
While not all consumers have soured on sugar, enough of them have to the point that it's imperative that a better sweetener is found. Otherwise, more soda drinkers — and the much-needed revenue they bring — will flee to better-for-you drinks.