Stevia: Sweet Mystery Of Summer

EVERY SUMMER it feels like the beverage industry must answer a few tough questions about its future.

Last year, for example, environmental concerns seemed to cast the long shadow, pushing bottled water onto the back burner for both Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo. The vacuum created by the widespread cut-over of vitaminwater into the Coke system created a number of vacancies in the ranks of independent distributors. While that has created opportunities for marketers like Function, Muscle Milk, Steaz, and many others, many of the independents in what was once considered the “glaceau network” have yet to find a permanent solution.

This year, the big puzzler is a sweet one: can major beverage companies successfully incorporate the new stevia-derived “natural” sweetener Rebaudioside-A into their products? So far introductions have not yet taken on a mainstream feel. While major brands like vitaminwater and SoBe Lifewater have launched low-calorie versions, and there is a Reb-A-sweetened version of Sprite knocking about in trials, the biggest media-backed rollout of a Reb-A product is a reduced-calorie version of Tropicana orange juice. Introductions have been measured, and with good reason. No one wants a repeat of spectacular consumer goods flops on the order of Olestra, Premier cigarettes, or New Coke.

But things have ramped up, both on the consumer education front and from a new product standpoint — Coke brought Odwalla’s juice drinks into play. Big Red is launching an AllSport Zero, and Sambazon has rolled out a diet energy drink.For large product marketing companies, there is no such thing as an absence of hype. In the absence of a major innovation, Reb-A has fast ascended from one of a variety of possible new, natural sweeteners like lo han guo and agave syrup to become a potential cure for the obesity-related ills of the entire beverage business. At the recent IFT conference, ingredient companies displayed incorporation methods for Reb-A left and right. No less a light than Massimo d’Amore, the Capo of PepsiCo’s North American Beverage Unit, has touted its potential across his company’s entire spectrum of beverages. Coke has been willing to risk possibly undercutting its own prize purchase, glaceau – itself long marketed as a healthy product – by using Reb-A as the sweetener in a reduced-calorie version of vitaminwater, before glaceau has been fully integrated into its new parent company’s corporate DNA.

This is happening even though some industry observers believe the rise of Reb-A has a forced feel, as if that hype vacuum is just grabbing the biggest thing it can find. The hype probably isn’t due to some unreasonable outlay required to develop the stuff, considering the bizarre array of past products that have been granted the FDA’s Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) status (basically a stamp the means “not subject to being relegated to supplement shelves”). So it’s pretty obvious that the risk in developing Reb-A before it received GRAS approval, while requiring some work on the part of the marketers and folks like Cargill and Merisant, didn’t require a R&D budget anywhere near pharmaceutical company proportions. And a bigger hurdle remains — Reb-A’s lack of compatibility with certain flavors, including mainstream colas. To wit: with very few exceptions, the natural products companies, themselves no strangers to incorporating nontraditional sweeteners, have largely been shy about even tinkering with stevia; while there has been some pickup with the introduction of Reb-A, at least one major natural foods marketer has called it impossible to work with.

But here we are, on the cusp of summer, with a broad array of Reb-A breakouts about to hit the shelves. Perhaps the reason is that Reb-A has crossed major hurdles with regard to flavor compatibility, something that earlier Stevia products weren’t able to do. Given the number of different companies who are about to use it, there may be something to that. But questions about the pace of innovation remain. And one must wonder whether Reb-A has become this summer’s blockbuster by default or by decree. Should they really be encouraging the same kind of hype they threw around with regard to Splenda a few years ago (something that most companies would rather not live through again), or is this product just an experimental stalking horse for the potential consumer acceptance of a myriad of new natural sweeteners and reduced-calorie products (which might be a nice use, indeed)?

It seems unfair to answer a question with still more questions. But before the big thirsts of the season start to offer us some answers, that’s all we’ve got. That, and a whole bunch of ten-calorie products to sample. So stay tuned.