The Coca-Cola Company announced yesterday that it plans to launch the first Coke sweetened with stevia, in a mid-calorie offering targeting the Argentinian market, despite PepsiCo’s recent insistence that the natural plant-derived sweetener ‘does not work well in colas’.
The news hit the wires in the US late yesterday – via a press conference in Buenos Aires – and Beverage Digest, which broke the news, reports that sugar and stevia-sweetened Coca-Cola Life will have around half the calories of regular Coke and will go on sale this week.
While Coke has used stevia in products such as Fanta Select and Vitaminwater Zero, it has never used the high intensity sweetener in its flagship product, and the executives in Buenos Aires reportedly likened the launch to Coke Zero (in Australia, first of all), but said there were no dates set for launches elsewhere.
Coke's five-year Pure Circle partnership
We asked Mintel analyst David Turner if he saw a real future for stevia in the cola category, or whether this was instead more of a stop gap measure for Coca-Cola until new high-intensity, zero-calorie, natural sweeteners come online?
He told BeverageDaily.com: "Whilst this Coke [with stevia] may not be their last development, it is by no means a stop gap. Coke have recently signed a five year partnership agreement with on of the world's largest stevia producer Pure Circle."
Developments on stevia and other natural sweeteners continued and "there may well be new recipes as time progresses", Turner added.
This was certainly the case when the first wave of artificial sweeteners were used many years ago, the analyst noted, pointing to Tab (Coke's first diet soda launched in 1963 with cyclamates and saccharin), "so we may expect 2.0 versions as flavor development improves".
"From a Latin American point of view this is also very interesting, not just for CSD's but food products in general. Sugar alternative sweeteners are quite common, and stevia distribution is widespread as a table top/liquid sweetener," Turner said.
"However, whilst low calorie drinks or low calorie artificially sweetened packaged goods are widespread (e.g. Coke Zero, etc.) few products with stevia have been launched in the region."
With obesity a growing issue in many countries in Latin America (with particular problems in Brazil and Mexico) Turner added, "any initiative that can provide naturally low calorie products would be well received, providing taste and cost is not prohibitive".
'Stevia does not work well in colas': PepsiCo CEO
Coke seems to be responding to PepsiCo's recent cola moves; February 2013 saw PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi tell analysts on the firm’s Q4 earnings call that there had been a lack of “truly meaningful innovation on colas since the introduction of Diet in the 1960s”, and promised "disruptive innovation" from her firm to revive the category.
Speaking in May at the Sanford Bernstein Strategic Decisions Conference in New York, Nooyi slammed a “maniacal focus” on declining cola volumes among analysts, but later reaffirmed the importance of the category within carbonates.
“When we go and talk to consumers, especially in the US, they love the bubbles, they love the caffeine, they love the taste of cola. What do they not like? They don’t like the sugar levels. And recently they don’t like the artificial sweeteners.”
“Stevia unfortunately does not work well in colas,” she added – despite an Australian launch for Pepsi NEXT with stevia last September to effect a 30% sucrose cut.
Nooyi then claimed that mid-calorie Pepsi NEXT in its US incarnation (sweetened with high fructose corn syrup, aspartame, sucralose and acesulfame K) was “holding its own”, before promising new natural sweeteners and flavoring agents from PepsiCo to reinvigorate CSDs.