Coke Tests Stevia-Sweetened Cola in Argentina

Even the Coca-Cola Co., synonymous with tradition, known for its secret, unchanging formula (New Coke aside), has begun adapting to the future of CSDs. And it’s showing faith in stevia, the natural, non-caloric sweetener.

Coke announced on Wednesday in a company release that it will sell a cola sweetened with sugar and stevia in Argentina. The new product, Coca-Cola Life, will contain half the calories of a standard Coke.

Coke has added stevia to more than 45 products sold in more than 15 countries, including high-profile beverages like Vitaminwater Zero and Fanta Select, according to Rosalyn Menon Kennedy, Coke’s director of corporate external affairs. But the ingredient has never before been used in any form of its flagship cola. Kennedy said that the company believes in the ingredient, as proven by its partnership with Cargill for the 2007 launch of Truvia, a stevia-based sweetener. In March, Coke altered the recipe of Sprite in the U.K, adding stevia and dropping its calorie count by 30 percent.

Kennedy said that the launch corresponds with Coke’s desire to offer variety with both products and formats, as evidenced by its widely-distributed mini cans, for example. The company isn’t trying to fool drinkers into thinking Coca-Cola Life is another form of the original Coca-Cola, she said.

“We’re not intending it to replace any other,” Kennedy said. “It’s really an addition.”

While Kennedy said that the product was launched as yet another way to meet the demands of consumers and to continue Coke’s commitment to variety, the announcement aligns with the current climate for CSDs. As reported earlier this week, U.S. consumption of CSDs has declined by 12.5 percent from 2002 to 2012, according to Beverage Digest.

PepsiCo also uses stevia, but mostly in non-carbonated, fruit-flavored drinks. In September 2012, PepsiCo launched Pepsi Next, a reduced calorie, stevia-sweetened version of its flagship, in Australia, according to an article in Reuters. However, at a conference in May, PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi said that stevia doesn’t work well with colas. She also said that the advancement of sweetener technology could save the CSD industry.

“If you let this go too long, another three or five years, the consumers will walk away from [carbonated soft drinks],” she said at the conference.

Kennedy said that Coke realizes how cautious it needs to be when making a big decision like this, especially after the New Coke fiasco of 1985, which she called a valuable lesson for the company.

“It’s probably the best example of how our company really came to understand and listen to consumers,” Kennedy said.

Coca-Cola Life will hit the market this week in Argentina, and will grow only if it succeeds in its pilot market, Kennedy said. According to the Reuters article, Coke executives compared the launch to the 2005 debut of Coca-Cola Zero, which was introduced in Australia and now sells internationally.