The launch of stevia-sugar sweetened Coca-Cola Life into the UK signals a new era in sugar reduction, as it suggests stevia will soon be big in soft drinks, and may open up the use of sweeteners in foods, according to Professor Jack Winkler, former Professor of nutrition policy at London Metropolitan University.
“Coca-Cola Life is a significant event,” he told FoodNavigator. “The trial of Coca-Cola Life only began a year ago in Argentina and Chile, and a year later Coca-Cola is bringing the drink to one of the biggest and most health-sensitive markets. This is a very rapid expansion for the stevia-sugar concept.”
He continued: “That Coca-Cola is putting its name to that concept is significant because it suggests stevia will be big in soft drinks – if Coca-Cola goes down that route others are bound to follow – and that stevia will be usable in food products as well as drinks.”
Sweeteners in foods
Winkler said that one of the limitations to the sugar reduction that could be achieved by reformulation was that sweeteners were not used widely in food products - only in chewing gums and beverages.
“My belief is that stevia might provide a breakthrough in that area,” he said.
Winkler is also confident that stevia will not be subject to the same consumer backlash, as, say, aspartame.
“It’s significant that there hasn’t been any opposition to stevia in the UK. Coca-Cola Life will be a test case to see if it provokes any reactions.”
But he thinks strong opposition is unlikely, as his view is that consumers aren’t actually opposed to sweeteners.
“The opposition to sweeteners that is talked about isn’t actually an opposition to sweeteners – it’s an opposition to aspartame. That has become a 40 year war of attrition and no amount of evidence will persuade opponents to back down and change their opinion.”
An instrument of change
One of the reasons Professor Winkler is so excited about stevia’s potential is that he believes reformulation is key to tackling public health issues, and that Coca-Cola Life “is a good example of reformulation in a product category that contributes more sugar to the diet than any other”.
“Education, taxation and regulation are the main instruments of public health policy, but in the context of food, they have proved either politically ineffective or economically unfeasible...the most probable instrument is reformulation.”
He says there are three ways to reformulate sweetened food: de-habituation (or gradual reduction of sugar levels), using food processing technologies to enhance perceptions of sweetness, and using sweeteners in place of all or part of the sugar.
These approaches will be explored in detail by speakers from Action on Sugar, Leatherhead Food Research and the Food and Drink Federation in a session chaired by Professor Winkler at the Sugar Reduction Summit, which takes place on 9th July in London.