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While soda sales have been falling as obesity worries run rife, carbonated beverages still comprise one of the biggest packaged-food markets with about $21 billion in annual sales, according to market researcher Nielsen.
But carbonated beverages, particularly colas, are more complex as far as applying stevia as a sweetener, said Melanie Goulson, a principal food scientist at Cargill.
“It’s taken time for product developers to figure out how to use the ingredient,” Goulson said. “Nobody learned how to use stevia in food science school.”
A key challenge is to mask the licorice-like aftertaste that stevia can impart. Coca-Cola has made several trial runs with stevia in such lower-calorie beverages as Sprite Green and Sprite Select and Fanta Select.
Sprite Green had limited distribution and lasted from 2008 to about 2010. Sprite Select and Fanta Select were “tested in the United States,” and Coke is currently assessing whether the two sodas “support our brand and business needs, ” the company said in a written response to the Star Tribune.
In France, the company in March 2012 launched Sprite and Nestea sweetened with a combination of stevia and sugar. The drinks have 30 percent fewer calories than they had before reformulation and “are performing well, ” Coke said.
The biggie is Coca-Cola Life, which launched June 26 in Argentina. It is Coke’s first low-calorie cola sweetened with both stevia and sugar. Coca-Cola Life has 64 calories in 12 ounces, compared with standard Coke’s 140 calories. It’s meant as a complement to other Coke products, not a replacement.
“It is a unique, great-tasting option for those looking for beverages with fewer calories and is the latest example of our global commitment to offer more reduced low- and no-calorie options, ” the company said in a statement.
Why launch in Argentina? Coke said simply that there’s strong consumer demand in Argentina for a naturally sweetened beverage with fewer calories.
Feliciano of Euromonitor said Argentina is a good place to start with Coca-Cola Life. Argentina tends to be more health-conscious than much of Latin America, he said. And “especially in Latin America, consumers are very wary of artificial sweeteners.”
Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003