While the zero-calorie natural sweetener stevia is now used in scores of high-profile brands from Sprite Select to Vitamin Water Zero, the only top-tier cola brand to try it to date has been the Australian formulation of Pepsi Next, which has 30% less sugar*.
Until now. As first revealed by Beverage Digest, Coca-Cola has upped the ante in the mid-calorie cola stakes with the launch of Coca-Cola Life, which has 50% less sugar than regular Coke and debuts this week in Argentina, where Coca-Cola has a 50% share of the soda market, compared with Pepsi's 16% share.
Coca-Cola Life has 50% less sugar; Australian Pepsi Next stevia formula has 30% less sugar
According to Cargill, which is supplying the Truvia-branded Reb-A-based stevia leaf extract used in Coca-Cola Life, it contains 64 calories per 12oz serving, and 50% less sugar than standard full-sugar Coke. The Truvia branding also appears on pack.
Says Coca-Cola: "Coca-Cola Life... is a unique, great-tasting option for those looking for beverages with fewer calories. As we continue to expand our portfolio to meet consumers’ evolving needs and preferences around the world, we will explore roll-out of Coca-Cola Life in other markets."
Cargill VP Health Ingredients, David Henstrom told FoodNavigator-USA that this marked a significant step forward for stevia in general - and Cargill in particular - which has pumped a significant resources into “literally finding the sweet spot” for formulators using Truvia.
Off-tastes are more perceptible in diet colas sweetened with Reb A than in other formulations
As principal food scientist Wade Schmelzer told us during a recent visit to Cargill’s Minneapolis HQ , cola is a particularly challenging matrix for formulators looking to incorporate new natural sweeteners “because there are so many different elements to the cola flavor - vanilla, spice, citrus”.
Schmelzer, who believes that there are "many more stages of stevia technology to come" as research “unlocks the secrets of all the minor steviol glycosides”, says developing a great-tasting zero calorie cola is probably the Holy Grail when it comes to stevia-related product development.
PepsiCo makes the same point in a 2012 patent application describing cola beverages sweetened with steviol glycoside Reb-D, noting that the most popular steviol glycoside, Reb-A, “creates off-tastes in many [diet/zero-calorie] beverage formulations, especially… carbonated cola flavored beverages, for example slow on-set of sweetness, bitter aftertaste, licorice taste, and/or lingering aftertaste.
And these off-tastes “tend to be more perceptible in diet carbonated cola soft drinks sweetened with Reb A than in other beverage formulations”.
Zero calorie cola formulations are a lot more challenging
However, combining stevia extracts with some sugar does make life easier than in a zero-cal formulation, Cargill’s David Henstrom told us this morning.
“It's Coca-Cola's formulation, and it uses our Reb-A stevia leaf extract and they are obviously very confident that they have a great-tasting product. But for zero calorie cola formulations, which are a lot more challenging, you need to look at some of the other glycosides as well."
The focus now is on optimizing the minor glycosides
When it comes to industrial applications, the biggest opportunities for Truvia are still in beverages, although there is growing activity in confectionery, dairy, snacks and supplements, said Henstrom.
"More than half of stevia product launches use Truvia now, and as for overall food and beverage launches, we've gone from 300 [in 2010] to a predicted 1,300 in calendar year 2013, so we're very excited about the future."
But what about those lingering concerns about licorice aftertastes and bitterness?
While there are challenges associated with any high intensity sweetener, natural or artificial - with many proving most effective in blends - stevia products have improved considerably in the past five years, with crude extracts being gradually replaced by Reb-A-based products, which in turn are being replaced by more sophisticated blends of glycosides, said Truvia global commercial manager Breah Ostendorf.
“The focus now is on optimizing the minor glycosides. And customers are wowed with what we are showing them in this area right now.”
Truvia is now used in a growing number of products from Sprite and Fanta, to Kraft Crystal Light Pure, Old Orchard Cranberry Naturals juices, Steaz zero-calorie ice tea, Odwalla products, Vitamin Water Zero, and Smucker’s Sugar Free Fruit Spreads, she said.
“This is no longer a niche ingredient.”
Indra Nooyi: Our research indicates that consumers still love bubbles
PepsiCo chief executive Indra Nooyi, who promised to unleash “disruptive innovation” in the cola category in a recent earnings call, claims that “the industry has not had truly meaningful innovation in colas since the introduction of Diet in 1960s.”
In the firm’s Q4 earnings call, she said: “Our research indicates that consumers still love bubbles. They love the cola taste, but would like to lower their caloric intake without the taste of artificial sweeteners. So… we’ve been developing new natural sweeteners and flavoring aimed at reducing calories with no compromise on taste.”
*The Pepsi Next formula sold in the US has 60% less sugar, but also contains high fructose corn syrup, sucralose, and acesulfame potassium.