Press Clips: Searching for the Next Sweetener; Mexico’s Soda Tax Influence; Advice From a Pro

The search for the perfect sweetener goes on.

As more consumers begin to seek beverages with sugar substitutes, scientists aim to solve the massive puzzle of sweeteners. What’s all-natural (whatever that means), calorie-free and tastes, you know, good?

In an article for The New York Times that has the meat of War and Peace, Slate.com columnist Daniel Engber writes about the widespread, ongoing journey toward an answer that may or may not exist.

Engber writes that while the stevia industry relies heavily on carbonated soft-drink companies, these same companies arguably need stevia more. According to the article, sweetened carbonated beverage sales have dropped, per capita, every year since 1998.

“We’re more afraid of sugar than we’ve ever been,” Engber writes. “What yesterday were seen as ‘empty calories’ have today been designated as ‘toxic.’

The article notes that doctors warn patients that soda fattens your liver, weakens response times to insulin and can increase the risk of heart disease and diabetes. Engber writes that salt, fat and gluten seem harmless next to sugar, which was noted by market-research firm Mintel in 2012 as the most avoided ingredient, alongside added sugar. These two ingredients led the list by a wide margin.

However, the alternatives haven’t gone so smoothly.

When Engber visited the facility of Cargill, which makes Truvia, a widely-used form of stevia, he sampled Truvia atop a bowl of strawberries.

“Truvia felt a lot like sugar on my tongue — much more so than the rival brands — but there was something strange about its sweetness,” Engber writes. “The flavor dawdled and digressed, until it seemed as if I’d chewed a nub of licorice or soaked my gums in watered-down Campari.”

As a result, the article notes that most products on the market use a combination of sugar and a sweetener of choice. The reductions average about 30 to 50 percent.

This challenge has also paved the way for a large number of other attempts at sugar substitutes, such as Nectresse, which was released by McNeil Nutritionals in the summer of 2012. Nectresse is made from the Chinese mountain-orchard melon more commonly known as monk fruit.

Cargill has also been testing stevia alternatives, buttressed by a bioprospecting permit from the South African government. This permit enables the company to use molomo monate plants that grow on rocky slopes in northeast South Africa, according to the article. These plants can produce a sweet amino acid that could flavor diet beverages.

Meanwhile, Ryan Warner, an associate professor at Michigan State University, has led a team of scientists funded by stevia-maker Pure Circle to make a better version of stevia.

“Rather than alter the chemical, scientists are trying to alter the plant,” Engber writes. “They’d like to find a novel strain that makes sweet-tasting compounds with less bitterness and aftertaste — a kind of superstevia.”

Yet as scientists aim to improve the taste of sodas, politicians could soon find greater support for bumping taxes on them.

On Politico.com, where the kids get their Beltway kicks, Helena Bottemiller Evich writes that Mexico’s soda tax will likely reignite conversations on the matter in the U.S.

“Researchers, health advocates and the beverage industry are all closely watching what happens in Mexico — which recently overtook the U.S. as the world’s fattest country — as it’s the largest economy to ever enact such a policy.”

As you probably know well, proposals of this ilk haven’t made it out of the batter’s box in the U.S.. Evich writes that more than 30 states and cities, such as Philadelphia and the high-profile attempt by former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, have failed to pass this type of legislation.

Yet, despite the inaction, Evich writes that Mexico’s tax could alter perceptions north of the border.

“If Mexico’s tax plan…puts even a small dent in high-calorie consumption, health advocates are predicting there will be a resurgence in state and local action,” Evich writes.

One person who might support a soda tax: Kara Goldin, founder and CEO of Hint Water, which markets a line of zero-calorie, non-sweetened, flavored waters. In an interview with Forbes writer Alex Konrad, Goldin says that Hint’s biggest obstacle is fighting for shelf space with PepsiCo, Inc. and Coca-Cola Co., Inc., which often “underwrite their own product and provide monetary kickbacks to grocery chains in exchange for prominent placement.”

Kara Goldin, founder and CEO of Hint Water

The interview divulges some of Goldin’s most useful advice, including how to trump these common practices from the cola giants. She advises competitors to hang in there and keep those feet on the street.

Among other advice, Goldin also recommends that smaller companies would be wise to exercise patience before expecting to hit it big on Amazon. Hint’s fastest growth in sales have come through Amazon, Konrad writes, but it takes some focused work with active communities.

“Amazon is about traffic, so if you’re a small business, you need something unique that will show up in their searches,” Goldin said.