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PepsiCo sparks stevia wars with Coca-Cola

By Sarah Hills , 31-Jul-2008

PepsiCo is whipping up a storm in the beverage industry as it raises the stakes against its old rival Coca-Cola with the launch of a new natural sweetener from the stevia plant.

PepsiCo has joined with the Whole Earth Sweetener Company to introduce its all-natural, zero-calorie sweetener under the brand name of PureVia.

It follows hot on the heels of Coca-Cola which joined with Cargill to develop it’s rebiana product, which is also derived from stevia, in response to strong consumer demand for low-calorie products. They announced in May that when it comes to market the brand name for the sweetener will be Truvia.

It was also in May that Whole Earth, a subsidiary of Merisant Company, submitted a notification and supporting scientific data to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that PureVia is generally recognized as safe (GRAS) for use in beverages, foods and tabletop sweeteners.

Stevia has previously been permitted for sale in the US as a dietary supplement, on the basis of its low glycemic index. However, the US's largest supplier of stevia, Wisdom Natural Brands, announced in June that it is launching the natural sweetener beyond the dietary supplements aisle for the first time, after having self-affirmed GRAS.

PepsiCo told FoodNavigator-USA.com that it would prefer to wait for FDA approval before bringing PureVia to consumers in the United States. But it will debut in a new nutritionally enhanced PepsiCo beverage called SoBe Life, to be launched in Latin America, starting with Peru next month. It will then be rolled out globally.

Lou Imbrogno, PepsiCo's senior vice president of Pepsi worldwide technical operations, said: "This is a potential game-changer among zero-calorie sweeteners.

“PureVia is all natural. It's extracted from the stevia plant leaf and not synthetically produced. We've got ample supply and we look forward to bringing PureVia to consumers around the world."

According to Paul Block, chief executive officer of Merisant and Whole Earth Sweetener Company, it has taken four years of research and development to bring the product to market.

Given this time frame, it is hard to determine whether PepsiCo or Coca-Cola had the lead in the first instance.

Block added: “What's unique about PureVia is that we've identified a way to extract the purest part of the stevia leaf to reveal the cleanest and most consistent taste.”

Regulation

The biggest markets for stevia are Japan and Korea, where stevia has been used to sweeten diet drinks for around 20 years and is commonly used as an 'at-home' sweetener.

The US market is estimated to be worth about $60m, a figure analysts say could triple if FDA GRAS was granted, as the industry has resolved many of the taste and formulation issues that plagued the ingredient in the past.

Wisdom Natural Brands has self-affirmed its version of stevia - Sweet Leaf - as GRAS and said the ingredient will be available in a soda or food product by the year's end. Coca-Cola and Cargill also recently published science backing their ingredient, Truvia.

Now the science around the ingredient's safety is growing to the point where it is going to be increasingly difficult for FDA to refuse it, especially as consumer demand for natural low-calorie sweeteners grows. Although experts say this may still be some time off.

Stevia plant

The active sweetener in PureVia is Reb A, the sweetest, purest part of the leaf from the South American stevia plant, which is approximately 200 times as sweet as sugar.

PepsiCo intends to market PureVia in beverages and foods around the world while the Whole Earth Sweetener Company will market the brand as a tabletop sweetener that will launch in the US this fall.

PureVia will be available initially in three SoBe Life flavor blends: Tropical Pomegranate, Strawberry-Kiwi and Orange-Tangerine.

PepsiCo and Whole Earth will jointly own and market PureVia globally. The two companies have agreed to buy the natural sweetener from PureCircle, a leading supplier of pure Reb A, which also will have the exclusive license to market Reb A under the PureVia brand in certain categories.

At the beginning of the year it was revealed that PureCircle, had secured an extension to its agreement with Cargill to supply its stevia-derived Reb-A until mid-2010.

The non-exclusive basis of the new contract means that PureCircle, a Malaysian company, can also supply other companies. And it said at the time that it already had agreements in place with other food and beverage firms, which would come into effect from July 1 this year.

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