Coca-Cola and Cargill (a private agribusiness company, the largest private corporation in the US, has operations in about 70 countries) have come up with something the food industry has been seeking for years: A "natural" zero-calorie sweetener.
In 2008, the companies introduced "Truvia," a product made from the South American plant stevia, which has been used for decades in Paraguay and Brazil, as well as in East Asia.
The companies have been developing the product for more than a decade. The main stumbling block has been the Food and Drug Administration, which has banned its use as a food ingredient due to health concerns. (But in another example of the United States' insane food-regulation framework, the FDA had earlier OK'd stevia as a "dietary supplement" that could be sold as long as it wasn't marketed as an actual food or as a sweetener.)
In May, the companies issued a set of studies showing that stevia is safe. Even the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an organization that often seems biased toward banning anything even remotely questionable, and which in the past has looked askance at stevia, has said the studies seem to put the product in the clear.
So Truvia is now going on sale as a tabletop sweetener. The big prize for Coke and Cargill, though, is still ahead, whenever Truvia makes its way into processed food products such as soft drinks and breakfast cereals. Coke has exclusive rights to its use in soft drinks, and Cargill will market it to food processors. Those will start rolling out over the next year.
None of this is good news for the companies that make what are for now the top-selling artificial sweeteners, all of which have some kind of problem associated with them.
Splenda, made by Tate & Lyle, now enjoys nearly two-thirds of the market for non-sugar sweeteners. Splenda is the brand name of sucralose, a laboratory-concocted chemical. Though it has passed muster with most regulatory agencies, several health concerns have been raised about the product. And for marketing purposes, there's nothing "natural" about it -- although the company did try to get away with saying it was "made from sugar" until its competitors sued.
Aspartame is sold chiefly under two brand names -- Equal, owned by Merisant, and NutraSweet, owned by the private-equity shop J.W. Childs. Though also approved by regulatory bodies, mounting health concerns -- including cancer scares -- are what allowed Splenda to trounce aspartame in the marketplace.
Other potential losers include the small companies that have been marketing stevia as a "dietary supplement," which is all the FDA would allow. There are a bunch of these, but perhaps the most interesting is Zevia, a Seattle company that sells an eponymous soft drink that can't be called a soft drink. Zevia, according to its label, is "a carbonated stevia supplement" that is a "natural alternative to diet soda."