Coca-Cola to release stevia-sweetened drinks this week

and Jeff Klineman

Coca-Cola will release a trio of stevia-sweetened Odwalla beverages this week, according to the Wall Street Journal, pre-empting a kind of tacit approval from the Food and Drug Administration.

Coca-Cola and Cargill submitted research to the FDA in May that asserted that their variation on stevia, called Truvia, should be granted generally recognized as safe (GRAS) status. The FDA website said that it tries to respond to most petitions within 180 days, but the agency does not require firms to wait for official approval before releasing products believed to be safe.

The FDA could still withdraw support for the zero-calorie, natural sweetener, which would require Coke to pull all of its stevia-sweetened products from the market, but Amy Boileay, Cargill’s manager or regulatory and scientific affairs, told the Journal that her firm was confident that Truvia would be approved.

“If the agency had questions or concerns, we would know,” she said.

Cargill has already released Truvia as a table-top sweetener, underscoring its confidence for the pending approval.

Coca-Cola spokesman Ray Crockett would not comment on the veracity of the Journal story, but made a brief statement on behalf of his company.

“As we have said, we plan to continue to innovate with multiple products using the new sweetener,” Crockett said.

The Odwalla entry would put Coca-Cola ahead in the battle over the sweetener. PepsiCo also applied for GRAS status for its stevia variant, called PurevVia. In July, PepsiCo introduced a stevia-sweetened variant of SoBe Life into the Peruvian market. In addition, Pepsi Americas beverage chief recently announced plans for a suite of stevia-sweetened drinks – including SoBe Life Water and a low calorie juice line called Trop50 – that are “ready to go the moment we get the green light,” but none have yet been released.

Talk of stevia as a sweetener was also running high at a major industry event in New York today. PepsiCo officials said it had the potential to revive the lagging carbonated beverage category.

“If rebiana works,” said Massimo D’Amore, the chief marketing officer of PepsiCo North America. “We’ll see much better performance from CSDs.”

Coca-Cola’s Odwalla products would be the first American beverage from either of the beverage industry’s largest two players to include stevia. Morgan Stanley Analyst William Pecoriello said he doesn’t believe that stevia will fuel growth in the beverage industry.

“Taste is key,” he wrote in a note to investors, “and we believe rebiana still has too strong a flavor to be used across soft drink categories (colas) and brands without affecting how they taste.”