Leading UK smoothie maker Innocent Drinks this week risked the wrath of its fan base by selling up to a fifth of its business to one of the biggest corporations in the US - The Coca-Cola Co. Michelle Russell assesses the damage.

Innocent, which has grown on the back of its ethical credentials, sold the share for GBP30m (US$44.5m) and said the money will bulk up its international expansion plans.

London-based Innocent is another in a long line of small companies that have signed lucrative deals with corporate giants, all having ridden various ethical bandwagons before selling out to multi-nationals in the end.

Ben and Jerry's ice-cream got into bed with Unilever, Pret A Manger with McDonald's, Green and Blacks organic chocolate with Cadbury, and Seeds of Change with Mars.

One angry blogger said on Innocent's website: "Disgrace but not surprising, you have sold your soul. That's the last time we buy your products."

Another said: "I don't want 20% of the money I pay to your profits going to Coca-Cola. I have spent many years trying to support ethical companies and Coca-Cola has frequently proved to be nothing of the sort. You should be ashamed."

Bad news for Innocent? Well, some bloggers were more optimistic about the deal, one of which said that it's more important to think about what Innocent has gained by the deal, instead of what has been lost. This, the blogger said, is the security and backing needed to expand and develop the Innocent brand.

From Coca-Cola's perspective, the stake in Innocent could help boost the company's health credentials, as well as give it a strong foothold in the smoothie category, which has stormed the mainstream soft drinks market in the UK in the last few years.

The deal comes after rival PepsiCo last year launched Tropicana smoothies. The group also bought PJ Smoothies four years ago, although Innocent retains a UK smoothie market share of around 70%.

For Innocent, co-founder Richard Reed insists that the investment will change little apart from Innocent's commercial clout; furthering its ambitions to expand across Europe.

"Every promise that Innocent has made - about making only natural healthy products, pioneering the use of better, socially and environmentally aware ingredients, packaging and production techniques, donating money to charity and having a point of view on the world - will remain. We'll just get to do them even more," Reed said.

Commenting on the deal, the Wall Street Journal said this week: "Coke and its foundation made more than $82m in charitable donations in 2008, in areas ranging from college scholarships to water stewardship and disaster relief.

"But the 123-year-old company has been known to kill ads that were deemed too edgy and is vastly bigger and more buttoned-up than a closely held newcomer such as Innocent."

Some analysts, in a more cynical approach, have suggested that the deal looks more like than exit strategy for some of Innocent's top execs, rather than an investment for growth.

What is clear is that, after 11 years building up the company on the basis of its ethical credentials, the long-term success and integrity of the brand relies upon it maintaining that stance.