Coca-Cola said it has no reason to drop the artificial sweetener aspartame from its low or zero calorie beverage brands in the European market as it welcomes last week’s approval by the European Commission for the use of the natural sweetener stevia in drinks and foodstuffs.
In the second part of our special on stevia, FoodNavigator.com speaks exclusively to Luc Aelterman, R&D director, Coca-Cola Europe as well as his colleagues Joan Prats - corporate responsibility director, health & wellness and Thalia Constantinidou, scientific and regulatory affairs director, about the opening up of the EU market for stevia sweetened beverages.
Prats said that the drinks giant intends to roll out stevia-based products throughout Europe from February or March next year but he would not be drawn on priority target countries or on which of the 140 Coca-Cola brands in Europe would be reformulated along stevia lines.
Communicating to consumers
While not able to leverage the term ‘natural’ on beverage labelling in the EU, scientific and regulatory affairs director, Constantinidou told this publication that Coca-Cola Europe intends to explain the process of stevia extraction to EU consumers through on-pack and other communication platforms such as websites to press home the naturalness of the sweetener.
And the regulatory affairs director said that Coca-Cola has no intention to accelerate brand development or marketing initiatives in Europe based on proposal for taxes on sweetened drinks in some countries, such as France and Ireland. “Our stevia campaign will be proceeding as planned and is not influenced by such proposals,” remarked Constantinidou.
Low-calorie beverage penetration
Prats said that low-calorie beverages account for 30% of Coca-Cola’s sales volume in Western Europe, with massive growth for diet drinks noted over the past five years in countries such as Germany, the Benelux, the UK and, of course, France.
The multi-national soft drinks company took advantage of the two-year transitory regulatory window in France to reformulate Fanta Still with stevia, which hit the shelves in 2010 and has a reduction in sugar content of around 30%. The drinks giant’s ready-to-drink ice tea brand Nestea, formulated using stevia, is on the market in Switzerland.
“It is still early stage in of sales for stevia-based Fanta Still in the French market since its launch there in 2010 but it has already notched up 6% of total sales volume for Fanta in the country. And consumer awareness of stevia in France and Switzerland is already hitting the 50% mark,” he added.
When asked what Coca-Cola Europe’s strategy was in relation to aspartame, given EU approval for stevia, the EU consumer partiality for natural ingredients and the negative press around the artificial sweetener, Prats said that Coca-Cola is all about giving consumers choice and that the drinks giant has no intention of ditching the sweetener in favour of using stevia only.
“All the ingredients we use are safe, and we have no reason to replace any of our sweeteners on such grounds. Obviously, we will continue to monitor regulatory developments around aspartame in the EU,” he remarked.
Cost “not the only” factor
R&D Director, Aelterman, stressed that formulation using aspartame was still a priority for the drinks company. He notes that 1 gram of stevia tastes approximately as sweet as 1 gram of aspartame and that the artificial sweetener is more cost effective than stevia in terms of beverage formulation. However, he points out that while the cost of ingredients, naturally, has an impact on the ingredient choices Coca-Cola makes it is not the only influencer.
"Two other critical factors inform our sweetener selections - the regulatory environment in each market we operate in and consumer preferences. And it is not the case that all consumers are walking away from aspartame and other such high intensity sweeteners,” continued the R&D Director.
Aelterman said that a combination of stevia and sucrose works well to allow a partial substitution of sugar in diet beverages, enabling brands that are “equally good in taste” to their full sugar equivalents.
He explains that the percentage of juice in Fanta Still helps enormously with the sweetness profile of the product.
There are similar challenges when formulating with both stevia and aspartame but Aelterman points out that R&D work at Coca-Cola is informed by 30 year’ experience of using the artificial sweetener, with the drinks giant having familiarity with stevia-based formulation for around two years only.
“We will continue to rely on information from our colleagues in North America and Asia on which masking blends to use to counter the lingering sweetness and the bitter liquorice aftertaste of stevia in terms of brand development for the European market.” he said.