Coca-Cola Offers A Sweet Quest: A Million Bucks To Replace Sugar

Sep 4, 2017
Originally published on September 4, 2017 7:43 am

It's not lost on beverage makers that consumers are drinking fewer sodas as they aim to cut back on sugar.

"Sugar is now the number one item that consumers want to avoid in their diets," says Darren Seifer, a food and beverage industry analyst with the NPD Group. The message to consume less is coming from health experts around the globe.

It's a challenge for the beverage industry, as is the fact that many consumers don't like the idea of artificial sweeteners found in diet drinks.

So, the search for new, alternative sweeteners that can appeal to consumers' changing tastes is in full swing. And Coca-Cola has turned to crowd-sourcing.

The company has launched a competition on the crowd-sourcing platform HeroX. According to this description on Coca-Cola's corporate website, Coke is seeking "a naturally sourced, safe, low- or no-calorie compound that creates the taste sensation of sugar when used in beverages." The company says, "one grand prize winner will be awarded $1 million in October 2018."

So, can scientists come up with this kind of sweetener?

"Well, this is a hundred-million dollar question, because it's so difficult and so potentially lucrative," says Paul Breslin, a professor in the nutritional sciences department at Rutgers University and a member of the Monell Chemical Senses Center.

Given the role excessive sugar consumption plays in the obesity and Type 2 diabetes epidemics, there's a lot of focus on finding replacements. But "the search for [alternative sweeteners] is actually an old idea," says Breslin.

Remember Tab, the diet cola sweetened with saccharin? That was introduced back in 1963. And soon after its introduction "there was a big push to identify other compounds that tasted better than saccharin," Breslin says. He says chemists went on to generate many, many compounds that tasted sweet.

Diet colas certainly found their following, and many consumers still consume them. But artificial sweeteners have had challenges – from safety questions, to regulatory hurdles, to taste. They just don't taste like sugar.

When it comes to sugar, Breslin says, it may be hard to trick our taste buds.

"Our love of sugar goes way back," he says. "It pre-dates our species — to when we last shared a common ancestor with chimps and apes." Those ancestors ate a diet that included a lot of fruit, and the natural sugar in the fruit provided a big source of energy. "Yes, we have an ancient love of sugar."

So, Breslin says, from an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that we seek out sugar – and seem to be highly attuned to its taste.

"When something doesn't match the profile of sugar, you don't even know why, you can't give voice to it," says Breslin. "You just know something's off about it."

In the quest to find alternatives that may come closer to matching the taste and feel of sugar, the search has moved away from the chemistry lab.

"Right now, the search is more focused on natural sweeteners, that are naturally sourced, like plant compounds," Breslin says.

There are already several plant-based sweeteners on the market, including stevia and monk-fruit-based sweeteners. But, so far, they're not as popular as analysts had anticipated. There have been issues with bitterness and aftertaste.

Coca-Cola already has products sweetened with stevia. And Robert Long, senior vice president and chief innovation officer at Coca-Cola, said in this statement, that the company is pleased with the low- and no-calorie sweeteners it uses. But he also said the company must continue to innovate "and keep looking for new beverage ingredients to meet consumers' evolving tastes and lifestyles."

So, Coca-Cola is excluding stevia and monk fruit compounds from its competition. The company says it is looking for novel alternatives.

But Paul Breslin says he is optimistic. "I'm sure that are many more [compounds] out there that we haven't found yet," Breslin says. And he says he is curious about Coke's competition.

But, he says, any new compound that's identified may come with the same challenges as the ones that are already in the market. In other words, finding a compound that can match sugar is easier said than done.

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(SOUNDBITE THRUPENCE'S "FOREST ON THE SUN")

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

As health-conscious Americans try to cut back on sugar, Coca-Cola has turned its quest for alternative sweeteners into a competition. The company says it will award a million dollars to the winner of its sweetener challenge. Although, as NPR's Allison Aubrey reports, coming up with a new sugar replacement will not be easy.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: If you now think twice before reaching for a sugary drink, you're not alone. Darren Seifer is a food and beverage analyst with the NPD Group.

DARREN SEIFER: Sugar is now the number-one item that consumers want to avoid in their diets.

AUBREY: Sales of carbonated soft drinks have taken a hit, Seifer says, and the problem for the beverage industry is that alternatives, such as artificially sweetened drinks, turn off many consumers, too.

SEIFER: If the regular sodas are facing the backlash because they have too much sugars then the diet colas are facing backlash because they contain a lot of artificial ingredients.

AUBREY: So why don't we have a sweetener that many of us are looking for? One that seems natural, tastes like sugar but without the calories.

PAUL BRESLIN: Well, this is a hundred-million-dollar question because it's so difficult and because it's so potentially lucrative. This is the big question.

AUBREY: That's Paul Breslin, a professor in the Nutritional Sciences Department at Rutgers University. He says there may be an urgency now given sugar's role in obesity and Type 2 diabetes, but, looking for sugar alternatives?

BRESLIN: The search for these is actually an old idea.

AUBREY: Remember Tab Cola, made with the sweetener saccharin? That was introduced back in 1963.

BRESLIN: And there was a big push to identify other compounds that tasted better than saccharin, and so the chemists figured out how to generate these compounds to the tune of making many, many, many compounds that tasted sweet.

AUBREY: But there have been challenges for these artificial sweeteners, from safety questions to regulatory hurdles and taste. Breslin says when it comes to sugar, it's hard to trick the tongue.

BRESLIN: Our love of sugar goes back predating our species to when we last shared a common ancestor with chimpanzees and apes. So yes, we have an ancient love of sugar.

AUBREY: Those ancestors ate a diet that included lots of fruit, and the natural sugars were a big source of energy. So Breslin says, from an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that our brains and bodies would want to seek out the real thing.

BRESLIN: When something doesn't match the profile of sugar, you don't even necessarily know why. You can't give voice to why it's not sugar, you just know something's off about it.

AUBREY: Moving forward, he says the quest for alternatives is moving away from the chemistry lab.

BRESLIN: Right now I think the searches are more focused on finding natural sweeteners that are naturally sourced, like plant compounds.

AUBREY: There are already several on the market, including stevia and monk fruit-based based sweeteners, but so far they're not as popular as beverage-makers had hoped. Coca-Cola says to enter its sweetener competition they're looking for novel compounds, and Paul Breslin says he's optimistic they're out there.

BRESLIN: I'm sure that there are many more out there that we haven't found yet.

AUBREY: But finding a natural compound that can mimic the profile and taste of sugar, Breslin says, is a lot easier said than done.

AUBREY: Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.