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December 4, 2018

What is the future of sweet?

Robert Lang // WTF FOOD

Around the globe, people are becoming more aware of their sugar intake. When Robert Long, senior vice president and chief innovation officer of The Coca-Cola Company asks What the Future, he is thinking about how to create new drinks to meet changing consumer tastes.


GenPop: Our data shows, and certainly this is a broad consumer trend, that people are interested in lowering their sugar intake. How is The Coca-Cola Company seeing this manifest in terms of changing consumer demands?

Robert Long: We’re doing our best to make available reduced sugar products and that would be through reformulation. We’ve reformulated more than 500 products around the world. We’re also making our zero sugar products better and promoting them more. We also have a strategy of reducing the pack size so portion control is part of the strategy as well. As we take these actions, consumers are responding positively in the sense that they are accepting sugar-reduced products at a good rate. We also see growth in our zero-sugar portfolio as well as in their smaller pack sizes.

GenPop: Could you give us a quick layman’s definition of reformulation.

Long: If you maintain sweetness or stay close to the same sweetness, you can reduce [sugars] up to 10 percent in some products. If you go beyond that you typically have to compensate with low/no calorie sweeteners. We’ve also seen success with products like Honest Kids which is a juice drink with no added sugar. So, people are accepting less sweetness.

GenPop: The beverage industry is taking a lead role in exploring ways to reduce sugar with the Balance US program.

Long: This is an industry effort where we have collaborated [with PepsiCo., Dr. Pepper and the American Beverage Association] to understand how we can make consumers more aware of reduced sugar options and then make those options more appealing to consumers. That includes making sure there’s enough visibility of products with reduced sugar on the shelf and promoting those products in a way that makes trial more likely. The company across markets is trying to make sure that low- and no-calorie options are more prominently featured, all the way up to and including some markets where the zero sugar variants of a product is at a discount versus a full sugar product.

GenPop: Is the trend to reduce sugar playing out in other markets as well as the U.S.?

Long: Yes. It’s pretty much everywhere. There are markets that value sugar but even those markets it’s more a dichotomy. Some people want the calories for energy but others are concerned about obesity and diabetes. I can’t think of a market where there’s not some segment concerned about sugar consumption.

GenPop: How do you see sweeteners and sweetened products evolving in the next five or 10 years?

Long: We will see a lot more choice of products with different kinds of sweeteners and amount of sweetness. But I also see people being able to choose and customize their products with sweeteners of their preference sort of like we do today with coffee when we have a choice of white pack, the pink pack, the yellow pack and the green pack. I think the color spectrum will expand and consumers will be able to control what they put in more beverages than they can control today.

GenPop: Are there other flavor profiles that might trend upwards if sweets trend down.

Long: I used to work in Japan so I got to experience something as a North American that I didn’t anticipate, which is a lot of that market is unsweetened products that tend to be teas— very complex green teas and blended teas. You really can acquire a taste for drinking things with no sweetness at all because they have rich tea flavor. Similarly, people can drink black coffee and develop ways of processing coffee make it more acceptable without sweetness. I would say we’ve also seen high acceptance of flavored waters with no sweetness at all.

GenPop: Are there trends we should be watching in terms of natural and non-sugar sweeteners such as monk fruit and agave?

Long: I think what you’re going to see is that those plants have a multitude of components and some are better than others. We’re in the process of trying to isolate those best-tasting components and as we do that we often have challenges in getting sufficient quantities at cost. You’re going to see a lot of innovation in discovering the better parts of these fruits or these plants and then develop supply chains that are leveraging different kinds of capability to scale them up so that they are affordable.

GenPop: What did you learn with your sweetener challenge?

Long: You’re referring to the HeroX campaign from 2017 where The Coca-Cola Company issued a challenge to find a natural, safe, low- or no-calorie compound that generates the taste sensation of sugar in beverages and foods. We received over 400 submissions from 48 countries, and while we didn’t learn anything new in terms of what new potential sweeteners from nature might be out there, it did confirm much of our own insights into  how consumer expectations are shifting. I hope if nothing else we stimulate more curiosity among people and they have the capability to actually discover new things.

GenPop: Will we see biotechnology helping these discoveries?

Long: I think we are seeing ways to leverage biotechnology to recreate what nature has already given us.

GenPop: Will they be created in a healthier way that the body is able to absorb better?

Long: I think it will be more about finding economically feasible ways of scaling up things that are already considered safe and good tasting. You can breed plants for decades and not get enough quantity at the right cost that make them broadly available. With biotechnology, the approach is to allow you to scale new sweeteners more cost effectively.

Robert Long is the chief innovation officer for The Coca-Cola Company. He joined the company in 2004 after an extensive career at Procter & Gamble.

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11.2 Million

Number of metric tons of sugar consumed in the U.S. in 2017-2018, ranking the nation as the fourth largest consumer in the world.

(Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture)

Americans and Canadians are concerned about sugar in their diets…

Overall, how concerned are you about the amount of sugar in your diet?

U.S / Canada

27% / 26%

Very concerned

27% / 26%

Somewhat concerned

27% / 26%

Not very concerned

27% / 26%

Not at all concerned

…across a broad range of food and beverages.

How concerned are you about the sugar content of each of the following products? (Concerned net)

69% / 73%

Candy

43% / 45%

Juices

65% / 66%

Canned fruit

50% / 55%

Flavored coffee

76% / 78%

Soda, pop and other carbonated beverages

59% / 57%

Sauces and condiments such as BBQ sauce and ketchup

69% / 74%

Deserts and other sweets


(Source: Ipsos survey conducted between Oct. 10 and 12, 2018 among 2,010 adults in the U.S. and between Oct. 26 and 29, 2018 among 1,004 adults in Canada.)

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