Coke Set to Unveil Stevia-Sweetened Beverages

Additive still awaiting FDA review

ATLANTA -- Coca-Cola Co. is expected to launch a drink in the U.S. this week containing a natural, calorie-free sweetener, intensifying a race with Pepsi Inc. to dominate a new generation of noncarbonated beverages, reported The Wall Street Journal. Coke is pushing ahead even though the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) as of Sunday had not issued a formal blessing of the ingredient, the report added. Coke plans to market three flavors of a juice drink in its Odwalla line that contain the sweetener, derived from the herb stevia, according to people familiar with the [image-nocss] plans cited by the newspaper.

Pepsi has several drinks ready to go in the U.S. market with the sweetener, three flavors of a zero-calorie SoBe Lifewater and an orange-juice drink called Trop50, containing half the calories and sugar of OJ. But Pepsi is waiting for the FDA to clear the additive. "We're ready to go the moment we get the green light," Massimo d'Amore, Pepsi's Americas beverage chief, told investors at a conference last month, according to the report. In August, Pepsi began selling an enhanced water drink with the sweetener in Peru, where stevia is approved.

Coke also aims to put the sweetener in a version of Glaceau Vitaminwater early next year, said the Journal, citing Beverage Digest. A Coke spokesperson declined to comment to the paper on the company's product-launch plans.

Stevia is approved for use in at least 12 countries and as a dietary supplement in the United States, said the report. But after some studies suggested adverse health effects from stevia-based products, such as potential mutations in the livers of rats, the FDA concluded in the early 1990s that data weren't sufficient to allow its use as a food additive.

Coke, Pepsi and companies they are working with say their sweetenercalled Truvia by Coke and PureVia by Pepsiis more highly purified than the versions of stevia used in those tests, and that new data have been submitted to the FDA. Cargill Inc., which teamed up with Coke, and Whole Earth Sweetener Co., which is working with Pepsi, said research they sponsored and submitted to the FDA in May found it to be safe.

The FDA said it does not have a specific date for completion of the review.

The FDA's go-ahead, in the form of a "no objection" letter, is not required under the voluntary notification program through which the sweetener is being evaluated, said the report. But an official notice would help the companies assure consumers and retailers and ensure that the companies avoid the embarrassment of pulling a product off the market if the FDA does indeed object.

Consumer advocates have criticized the FDA's voluntary program for new ingredients as too industry-friendly, the report said. "Companies should not be allowed to market a food ingredient before the FDA has reviewed the data and concluded that it is safe," said Michael Jacobson, executive director of Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer watchdog group.

Cargill, which spent six years developing the sweetener, defends the FDA notification process as transparent because the company sought comment from outside experts, including critics and published research findings in a scientific journal earlier this year. "We're confident in the safety of the ingredient," Amy Boileau, Cargill's manager of regulatory and scientific affairs, told the paper. "If the agency had questions or concerns, we would know."

Underscoring its confidence ahead of the FDA's word, Cargill began selling a tabletop version of the sweetener in the United States in July and is launching an ad campaign to build sales. The campaign, developed by Ogilvy & Mather, focuses on the natural derivation of the sweetener, with visuals of the stevia leaf.

Whole Earth Sweetener Co., a unit of Merisant Co., also sells a tabletop version of PureVia, but is holding off on marketing for the moment. "We want to have the FDA's support first," a company spokesperson told the paper.

A natural, good-tasting, no-calorie sweetener has long been the beverage industry's holy grail, the Journal said. But stevia's success isn't guaranteed: Not every beverage tastes good with it, and the drinks made public thus far are relatively small and not big brand sodas, said the report. Both Coke and Pepsi are also evaluating other potential new sweeteners.

Meanwhile, Atlanta-based Coca-Cola has announced that it received a letter from its chairman, Neville Isdell, confirming that, consistent with the succession plan announced in December 2007, he will not stand for re-election to the board at the April 2009 Annual Meeting of Shareowners.

James D. Robinson III, presiding director of Coca-Cola, also said that the board intends to elect president and CEO Muhtar Kent to succeed Isdell as chairman following the April Annual Meeting of Shareowners.