There are lessons to be learned from Coca-Cola’s abortive attempt to introduce a new ‘natural’ sweetening system to selected Vitaminwater products, say formulation experts. But they are not necessarily about stevia.
Their comments came as Coca-Cola announced plans (click HERE ) to revert back to the old sweetening system (crystalline fructose + cane sugar) for some Vitaminwater products after fans gave the new one (stevia + cane sugar) the thumbs down.
But industry experts who have worked with stevia told FoodNavigator-USA the move was arguably less about stevia ‘not being ready for prime time’ than Coca-Cola reformulating a high-profile product without delivering a significant consumer benefit in the form of a calorie reduction, and failing to test a new formula on enough target consumers before unleashing it onto the market - surprising given its infamous experience with 'New' Coke.
One source suggested that the product had been thoroughly tested on consumers, but that it appeared that Coca-Cola may have experienced some issues with "spoilage" relating to another ingredient that was only in some of the flavors and had nothing to do with stevia.
Another source said the u-turn simply highlighted what can happen if you make any changes to a big brand with a loyal customer base, noting: “The issue may not even be that the reformulated product tastes ‘worse’, but simply that it tastes ‘different’.”
The issue may not be that the reformulated product tastes ‘worse’, but simply that it tastes ‘different’
He also noted that the formula for zero-calorie Vitaminwater Zero - which has been sweetened with stevia and erythritol for some time and has not garnered negative consumer feedback - is not being changed, while scores of other products in the Coca-Cola portfolio contain stevia and have not caused Coca-Cola similar issues, suggesting that the problem is not with the taste of stevia, per se.
Meanwhile, given that the reformulated Vitaminwater products contain the same number of calories (120) as the old ones, the recipe change appeared to be driven largely by Coca-Cola’s desire to address flagging sales by adopting a ‘naturally sweetened’ position rather than achieving a big calorie reduction, he added.
And as such, consumers would not be comparing the new version with diet or zero-cal products, but with the original, and may therefore be unwilling to accept any change in taste profile, especially as the revised formula does not deliver other benefits beyond the 'naturally sweetened' claim on the front of the pack.
Indeed, as Zevia boss Paddy Spence told our sister site Beveragedaily (click HERE ),Vitaminwater's biggest mistake was probably adding stevia to its formula without providing any material reduction in calories or sugar.
“So the brand’s fans, who made a conscious decision to select these full-calorie beverages as opposed to their zero-calorie counterparts, were being asked to accept a product that tasted different, with no accompanying benefits in nutritional content,” said Spence.
You have to look at the whole matrix...
One stevia industry source also noted that other recipe changes - such as the move to drop crystalline fructose - may well have had more to do with the consumer backlash than the addition of a tiny amount of stevia in the products in question.
“You’d have to look at the whole matrix, plus whether the relative amounts of other ingredients have changed, as well as the sweeteners, it’s far too simplistic to say that this somehow proves that stevia is not ready for ‘prime time’.”
Tate & Lyle - which supplies crystalline fructose (as well as stevia products under the Tasteva brand) - made this observation: "It is interesting to note that The Coca-Cola Company is moving back to its original vitaminwater recipe containing fructose, a sweetener known for its clean taste profile and flavor enhancement. It seems Glacéau vitaminwater consumers are voting for the original great-tasting product to be back on shelves."
The main thing any manufacturer must consider is adequate time for proper formulation - or re-formulation - and thorough consumer testing in market
One industry consultant, who has worked closely with stevia, told FoodNavigator-USA: “The main thing any manufacturer needs to consider is adequate time for proper formulation - or re-formulation - with thorough consumer testing in market.
“I can't comment on what Coca-Cola did or did not do in this situation but the main message to me is the extensive taste innovation that has happened on the stevia front since Reb A was first approved in 2008 along with the reality that stevia formulation is unique and challenging but completely achievable when stevia-specific formulation experts are leading the charge."
Americans are puritanical about what they will accept in their sweetness profiles
Meanwhile, Kantha Shelke, PhD, principal at food science and research firm Corvus Blue LLC, said the fact that “Americans are puritanical about what they will accept in their sweetness profiles” made any attempts to change the sweetening system in a high-profile brand an inherently risky enterprise.
While she could not comment on the Coke recipe specifically, she added: “American consumers have grown up around sugar-like and HFCS-like sweetness and only sucralose and aspartame have come close to these flavors to-date.
“While Americans seem to have embraced ‘fake vanilla-like’, ‘fake maple-like’, and ‘fake cinnamon-like’ notes in their sweet foods and drinks, they continue to reject ‘licorice’, ‘‘green’, and ‘barnyard hay’ notes that are typically associated with stevia."
PureCircle: There are hundreds of examples of products that have reformulated with stevia at much deeper calorie reductions that taste great and have been very successful
But what do leading stevia suppliers say?
Faith Son, vice president of marketing & innovation at PureCircle said: “Product reformulations of any kind are inherently challenging, but especially in cases like Vitaminwater, where there are multiple changes in the formula at once.
“Recall that there are hundreds of food and beverage product reformulations that don’t involve any stevia at all where brands have opted to return to the old formula. At the same time, there are hundreds of examples of products that have reformulated with stevia at much deeper calorie reductions that taste great and have been very successful.”
More than 2,000 stevia sweetened products were launched within the last year, a 73% increase from one year ago, she added. “Some successful mainstream product launches include 45 of Coca-Cola’s products in 15 countries on well-known, mainstream brands such as Fanta and Sprite.”