As we were putting the start-up package to bed last month, Coca-Cola announced that, with yogurt maker Cargill, it has been developing an all-natural sweetener to use in its various products. The sweetener, which the companies have named rebiana, comes from the South American plant stevia. For most fledgling companies, the news that a major corporation is introducing a very similar product just as you're getting things off the ground, is the kiss of death. But when I called Tim Avilla, the founder and CEO of Ventana Health, which makes Zsweet, one of this year's featured start ups, he responded with reserved optimism.
"The more natural and organic sweeteners out there, the greater market visibility," says Avilla. He's also hoping that Coca-Cola will speed up stevia's FDA application (it's currently listed as a "dietary supplement" as opposed to a sweetener), which could open the door to other companies (including Ventana) putting the herb to use. While it's certainly true that Zsweet could enjoy some second-hand attention if Coca-Cola employs a global marketing campaign to promote natural sweeteners, it seems just as likely that such a strategy would quickly drown out other, smaller brands.
Of course, rebiana's success will depend on its taste. Mike Richardson, an analyst at the Freedonia Group, which recently published a study on sweeteners, is surprised that Coca-Cola chose stevia as the prime ingredient. "One of the initial questions I have, is if this sweetener that is in the patent applications is going to have the same flavor drawbacks that stevia has. Whereas taste drawbacks in high intensity sweeteners tend to be muted in beverages like coffee and tea, in things like soft drinks, they aren't." What Diet Coke with rebiana will taste like is anybody's guess, but hopefully Coca-Cola has learned from the past -- New Coke anyone?