Marketplace Report: Coke Hunts for New Sweetener

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Coke hopes it has stumbled on the holy grail of artificial sweeteners. It's natural, calorie-free and also derived from a controversial South American herb. However, it has not been approved for use as a food additive in the United States or the European Union. Marketplace's John Dimsdale talks with Madeleine Brand.

ALEX COHEN, host:

From NPR News, it's DAY TO DAY.

Life just got a little sweeter. Maybe. The Wall Street Journal reports that Coke and a partner company have developed what they call a dream sweetener. Get this: it's calorie-free and it's all natural. They hope to use the sweet stuff in drinks, cereals and candy, but there are still some regulatory hurdles.

Joining us now is John Dimsdale from MARKETPLACE. So John, tell us about this stuff. What exactly is it?

JOHN DIMSDALE: Well, it's actually been known as a powerful natural sweetener for quite a while. It's derived from the leaf of the stevia plant, which is grown in South America and parts of Asia. It's already in use in Japan, China and Brazil despite a study in 1985 that concluded stevia caused liver problems.

There are some other concerns, too - fertility problems in men, hypertension. But Coca Cola has now applied for patents to use stevia in beverages. Cargill wants to sweeten food products with it. The companies claim that they're spending a lot of money doing all the proper safety tests, which are showing some promise.

Kari Bjorhus is a Coca-Cola Company spokeswoman.

Ms. KARI BJORHUS (Spokeswoman, Coca-Cola Company): Earlier studies were done on a much cruder form of stevia extract and you really can't extrapolate that to the ingredients that we're talking about.

Also, follow-on research by international health authorities showed that those health claims were not valid and in fact that the ingredient was safe. So we're confident that once we submit our clinical studies to the FDA that the safety of the product will be quite apparent.

COHEN: So how long exactly does Coke think that this approval process here in the U.S. might take?

DIMSDALE: Well, it's going to be a while. They're going to submit the test results to the Food and Drug Administration next year, and then it depends on how long regulators take to review all the evidence.

COHEN: Does this new sweetener have a name yet?

DIMSDALE: Not yet. Coca-Cola and Cargill are calling it rebiana(ph) for now, But that's probably going to change once they start marketing it.

COHEN: Whatever it winds up being called, the FDA, of course, still has to approve it. Could this top the synthetic sweeteners that were all a bit more familiar with - Equal, NutraSweet, Splenda?

DIMSDALE: Sure. If it lives up to its safety and taste promises, it could even become a competitor for a real sugar or corn syrup, which have been linked to diabetes and obesity. Health advocates raise safety concerns about all sweeteners that are now in use, including substitutes like saccharin, sucralose, aspartame. There's a lot at stake in this $350 million-a-year market for sugar substitutes. Just how much can be seen in the $200-million lawsuit against the makers of Splenda for its claim that it's a natural product made from sugar and not an artificial sweetener. That suit was settled out of court earlier this month for an undisclosed sum.

COHEN: And of course there's a question of whether or not we really need another brand of Diet Coke? There's Diet Coke, Splenda Diet Coke with lime, all the rest of that. Stay tuned for Diet Coke with rebiana.

Thanks so much, John. John Dimsdale of Public Radio's daily business show MARKETPLACE. It's produced by American Public Media.

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