Earlier this year, the Coca-Cola Company launched two challenges in a bid to spur innovation in the beverages market. After shelving its latest variety, Coca-Cola Life – a mid-range soft drink with the Coke flavour but fewer calories – the global giant got a taste of the widening disparity in what consumers want from sweet soft drinks.

“In recent years, there has been a sizable shift in consumers’ food and beverage consumption habits,” says Mary Quinlan, senior research fellow, NPD sweeteners at Tate & Lyle. “Beverage manufacturers have often found themselves caught in the middle of shifting attitudes and consumer confusion surrounding sweeteners. In order to meet those increasingly complex needs, manufacturers now use a combination of ingredients to reduce calories and sugars, and deliver the taste and texture experiences that consumers expect.”

But in the race to corner the carbonated market and meet all needs, is sweetener development moving too fast for the conventional consumer?

A matter of taste

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Despite fulfilling its mission to offer low calories and full taste, Coca-Cola Life floundered in the UK. The reason, though simple enough, is multi-layered. Consumers are driven primarily by taste and increasingly by health, in a combination that’s polarising attitudes towards sugar consumption.

63% of British people believe sugar has a negative impact on their health. And while three quarters of the population recognise that carbonated drinks are high in sugar, one third consume still them at least several times a week, according to a report by Mitsue Konishi, senior innovation analyst at GlobalData. From this, we see that full-fat varieties are considered a treat, while zero calorie flavours are the guilt-free daily habit.

Hoping to hit a happy medium, Coca-Cola Life was launched in the UK in 2014, containing 36% fewer calories than regular Coca-Cola, due to a formulation blending sugar with stevia-based sweeteners. Having being met with mixed reviews, Life’s recipe was adjusted twice, reducing the sugar to just 45% less than the regular flavour.

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Ironically, this was its downfall. Coca-Cola Life removed enough sugar to lose consumers looking for indulgence, but at 19g of sugar per 330ml can, not enough to attract the healthy-living crowd, demonstrating that, as far as carbonated beverages are concerned, there is no demand for mid-range.

However, a further, and more crucial, complication was the flavour profile. Coca-Cola Life’s stevia compound was intended to appeal to those seeking healthier products using natural ingredients, and offer a cleaner label. But while stevia is extremely sweet, it has a bitter aftertaste.

“Each sweetener has a characteristic sweetness profile which affects the flavour of the finished product,” explains Quinlan. “In the case of stevia sweeteners,” she says, “many people tried some of the early products sweetened with stevia and didn’t like the taste. Since then, further research and understanding about the taste characteristics of the different sweet components found in stevia (steviol glycosides), means that better tasting stevia sweeteners are now available.”

Liquid gold

Coca-Cola’s $1m Sweetener Challenge indicates just how valuable a successful natural sweetener could be. The global giant put out a call for “a natural, safe, reduced, low or no-calorie compound that generates the taste sensation of sugar when used in beverages and foods”. The rules state it cannot be derived from stevia or lo han guo (monk fruit) – another ill-received sweetener in the company’s back catalogue – and entries must provide scientific data to prove the new compound is natural, safe, economical and publicly acceptable. Is the chance of finding a brand new and commercially viable natural sweetener realistic?

“Identifying just one sweetener that performs exactly like sugar but without contributing any calories is a challenge” says Quinlan. “Recent developments within the sweetener space have improved the sweetness quality and taste of products. Alongside that, beverage formulators now have a toolbox of ingredients that can help them optimise the taste and move it closer to that of a sugar sweetened product. For example, ingredients like soluble fibers can help build back mouthfeel and body to a beverage, which is often missing from reduced sugar drinks. High-potency sweeteners such as sucralose and stevia can be used in combination with sucrose or to reduce calories and sugar without compromising taste.

“Right now, there isn’t a ‘holy grail’ when it comes to sweeteners – sugar replacement is never really a one-for-one exchange. However, the development of the newer, improved-taste stevia products, used in combination with other ingredients from the sugar reduction toolbox is certainly moving in the right direction.”

Sweetening the deal

A major obstacle to overcome is the public perception of sweeteners, hence Coca-Cola’s emphasis on a publicly acceptable ingredient. Past scandals which claimed sweeteners have a negative impact on health caused deep mistrust among consumers, even in the absence of any real medical evidence. And the ever-growing list of sweetener names and brands – from aspartame to acesulfame K, and xylitol to erythritol – create a field of confusion for consumers, with little to help distinguish the varying benefits. Up until a few years ago, stevia and monk fruit were unfamiliar names, and are still treated with suspicion by consumers.

“The lack of understanding surrounding sweeteners makes consumer education especially important,” says Quinlan, and GlobalData research shows that, although the situation has improved since 2014, today, 39% of UK and 28% of global consumers don’t know what stevia is. In real terms, touting stevia in a green can under the brand ‘Life’, all contributed to the confusion over the audience for this new drink. A direct message is essential to convey the benefits of natural sweeteners, and to help consumers identify their names.

This is where the Coca-Cola Company’s second challenge comes in. The Sweet Story focuses on drawing in the public as opposed to scientists; seeking stories about how people of different cultures make foods and drinks with natural sweeteners (again, not including stevia or monk fruit). The Sweet Story Challenge specifically requests stories that touch and connect with people; that invoke powerful emotions for the audience, for which the company is willing to pay five teams each $100,000.

As Quinlan points out, “the more the industry can help consumers understand the differences in their sweetener options, the more confident consumers are likely to feel about choosing ingredients that work best with their personal health goals.” And this confidence is worth a pretty penny as, if Coca-Cola can secure a new, naturally sourced sweetener with provenance, the company will be able to launch a product with consumers already on board, making Life’s lessons worth it.