The agribusiness giant is turning over a new leaf with a different sort of pitch for its new sweetener.
Cargill, known for its behind-the-scenes approach to dominating the food industry, this week steps into the limelight as it introduces a new sweetener: Truvia.
From advertisements on the Today Show to Good Morning America to "A Charlie Brown Christmas," the Minnetonka-based agribusiness giant will appeal directly to consumers to try its new no-calorie sweetener made from the leaves of stevia, a South American shrub.
"It's really about 'Where did this come from and what is it?'" said Zanna McFerson, business director of Cargill health and nutrition.
The $20 million, nine-month campaign, timed for the busy holiday cooking season as well as post-holiday dieting, marks the largest-ever direct-to-consumer campaign for Cargill, which does most of its food business supplying the likes of McDonalds with eggs or Coca-Cola with high-fructose corn syrup. The coming months will see Cargill hawking Truvia in customer promotions, online with a website and in television ads with lines such as: "Your sweet tooth loves this little green leaf. It just doesn't know it yet."
Cargill does have some of its own consumer products -- Honeysuckle White turkeys and Diamond Crystal salt -- but has never launched a publicity campaign of this size for any other product.
The sweetener has been available in packets at supermarkets since summer, and Coca-Cola soon may come out with three flavors of its Odwalla juice drink sweetened with Truvia, though a Coca-Cola spokesman would not confirm on Monday reports that the new beverages would come out this week.
But there's a beverage war, of sorts, to release new drinks made from stevia. Coke's arch-rival, Pepsi Co., already has announced plans to sell two drinks -- Trop 50 and SoBe Life Water -- sweetened with PureVia, a stevia sweetener made by Chicago-based Merisant, which makes the artificial sweetener Equal.
Stevia-based sweeteners such as Truvia could pose a major challenge to the global $3.5 billion artificial sweetener market, where sweeteners such as aspartame, saccharin and sucralose can't compete with Truvia's selling point: Its zero-calorie sweetness comes from nature, not science.
Yet stevia-based sweeteners also are something of a public health puzzle for consumers, with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) so far refusing to say whether it considers Truvia and PureVia safe or unsafe. Cargill unveiled Truvia in summer, after release in May of company-sponsored studies published in a peer-reviewed journal attesting to the sweetener's safety. The company, although not required by law to do so, asked the FDA to approve the sweetener under a provision known as the "Generally Recognized as Safe" rules, an expedited way for companies to earn FDA approval.
The FDA still is conducting that expedited review, an agency spokeswoman said by e-mail Monday. No timeline was available, she said. And the stevia plant itself remains under an FDA import alert imposed in 1995 that instructs agents to seize the plant and any food containing it imported into the country.
Adding to the confusion, stevia leaf sweeteners long have been approved for use by the FDA as a "dietary supplement," but not as a "food additive," which generally has meant stevia sweeteners can be sold at health-food stores but not in mainstream products.
With the federal review of stevia sweeteners underway, critics such as Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest said Monday that both companies should wait for the results of further tests.
"It's probably not a big hazard, but even if it's a small hazard and you multiply that tiny, tiny risk among 50 million consumers, then it becomes a much bigger problem," he said Monday.
The law doesn't require Cargill to get FDA approval before marketing its product, but that could be costly if the FDA comes back later, after products are on the shelf, and says it finds problems with Truvia.
The unveiling of the new Coke product, should it come this week, would be a triumphant moment for both Coca-Cola and Cargill, which began working together secretly to develop the new sweetener six years ago.
Stevia long has been known in its native Paraguay as a natural sweetener, and consumers in Japan and elsewhere use a powdered form in their foods. Some consumers in the United States know stevia as a tabletop sweetener they've long sprinkled on their foods, but the product typically has a licorice aftertaste. It's banned for food use in the European Union and Hong Kong, but widely used in many countries.
Matt McKinney • 612-673-7329