Coke, Cargill team up on new sweetener

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Coca-Cola Co. KO.N said on Thursday it has teamed up with Cargill Inc. CARG.UL, an agribusiness and commodity trading group, to market a new calorie-free natural sweetener aimed at health-conscious consumers.

The Atlanta-based beverage company has filed 24 patent applications for the product, tentatively named rebiana, and would have exclusive rights to develop and sell rebiana in beverages, spokeswoman Kari Bjorhus told Reuters.

Privately held Cargill would use the sweetener -- made from a South American herb called stevia -- in food products, and handle the growing of the shrub, which is native to Paraguay, Bjorhus said.

The news was first reported by the Wall Street Journal.

Coke would not say how much it spent developing rebiana, but Bjorhus said it was fair to say it was “significant.”

“Sweeteners are very important to Coca-Cola and we are looking at all kinds of different options,” Bjorhus said. “But we think this one has a very high potential.”

One big obstacle, however, is that stevia is not approved as a food additive by health regulators in the United States or the European Union, though it is approved as a dietary supplement.

Stevia is approved in 12 countries, including Japan, Brazil and China, and those would be the starting places to sell soft drinks with rebiana, Bjorhus said, adding that it was too early to discuss specific markets.

“We may not sell it in all 12 countries,” Bjorhus said.

She added that Cargill was handling the regulatory process.

The spokeswoman declined to say which beverages from Coke’s vast portfolio would get the new no-calorie sweetener, except to rule out its flagship brand.

“We don’t mess around with Coca-Cola,” Bjorhus said.

Currently, most non-diet soft drinks in the United States are sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup, a cheap alternative to cane sugar which has been criticized for contributing to obesity. What’s more, the recent demand for ethanol, also made from corn, has sent corn prices soaring, and eroded profits for beverage bottlers.

Lower-calorie sodas are now made with artificial sweeteners such as saccharin, aspartame and sucralose. The latter two are more commonly known as NutraSweet and Splenda.

Rebiana would appeal to health-conscious consumers and natural grocers such as Whole Foods Market Inc. WFMI.O, which tend to carry products made from natural ingredients.

Additional reporting by Nick Zieminski