Coca-Cola and Cargill are throwing their weight into the highly competitive sweetener market with a no-calorie, natural sweetener derived from the South American stevia plant. The two multinationals signed an agreement last June and will launch the sweetener — called rebiana — in the near future. Coca-Cola has already filed 24 patents for its use in products ranging from vitamins to cereals and will have exclusive rights to develop and sell rebiana in beverages, a spokesperson told the Wall Street Journal.
Cargill plans to market the sweetener for use in products such as yoghurt, cereals, ice cream and candy as well as tabletop use. The companies said they had spent a "significant amount" on research and development.
But regulatory hurdles remain, as stevia is not approved for use as a food ingredient in the US or the European Union due to a 1985 study that indicated stevia may cause liver problems. In those jurisdictions, it only has authorisation as a dietary supplement.
This has been a gripe of the stevia industry for more than a decade but so far its efforts to gain GRAS approval have fallen on deaf US Food and Drug Administration ears. The EU has also refused to budge, citing a lack of safety data and research indicating potential fertility problems among males. Stevia suppliers hope the might of a joint Coca-Cola and Cargill regulatory and scientific submission will be able to sway the regulator and allow the natural sweetener that is 200 times sweeter than sugar to be used in foodstuffs.
"We will not move forward until we have done our homework and done it correctly," a Coca-Cola spokesperson said, adding, "We wouldn't be this far along if we didn't have absolute confidence that we could satisfy everybody here."
A 2006 World Health Organization report found no major toxicity risks for stevia, but called for more research into the herb's effect on hypertension and blood-sugar levels.
Coca-Cola and Cargill said they will market rebiana in the 12 countries where stevia is approved as a food additive, including Japan, Brazil and China, while seeking regulatory approval in the US and the EU. They said it would take up to two years for the ingredient to fully come online as partnerships with Chinese, Paraguayan and Argentinian growers are nurtured.
Coca-Cola— which has spent more than a decade working on stevia — said it had found a way to isolate and extract the sweetest elements of the stevia leaf and therefore overcome the slightly bitter, liquorice taste typically associated with it.
Coca-Cola didn't say which of its beverages would incorporate the sweetener, but noted Powerade in Japan had been sweetened with stevia and that the recipe for its original Coke would not be altered.
The multibillion-dollar global sweetener market is dominated by sugar, high-fructose corn syrup and synthetic sweeteners such as aspartame and sucralose. However major sucralose supplier Tate & Lyle, which markets a version called Splenda, noted sales had flattened out as consumers seek more natural alternatives.
"We've known about [rebiana] for a long time," James May, president and founder of stevia specialist Wisdom Natural Brands, based in Arizona, told Natural Foods Merchandiser. Wisdom dominates US stevia sales with 80 per cent of a $16 million market. May acknowledged the presence of two giants like Coca-Cola and Cargill could speed regulatory change and drive stevia into the $500 million US table top sweetener category, but wondered, "Now that the pioneers have done the work and proved the efficacy, are they going to take over?"