Coca-Cola Life has been launched in Argentina

Coca-Cola Life has been launched in Argentina

There was an outbreak of eyebrow raising earlier this year when the Coca-Cola Co confirmed it was relaunching Sprite in the UK with some of the sugar replaced with stevia. Rejigging a formula to suit the Zeitgeist had an air of New Coke about it. But it wasn't a bold step by Coca-Cola – it was the logical one.

Consumers are demanding lower-calorie beverage without loss of flavour, and Sprite's fruity taste profile is a good mask for stevia's slightly bitter tang.

This week's announcement, however, of Coca-Cola Life in Argentina, the first time the company has used stevia in its flagship brand, was a far gutsier move. 

PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi has said in the past that colas and stevia do not mix too well, despite her company launching its own stevia-based Pepsi in Australia. Plus, Coca-Cola knows more than most - New Coke again - the dangers of tainting its trademark name.

But stevia has come a long way since it was first used as a natural sweetener by South American tribes people, and even since it was permitted as an additive by the US Food and Drug Administration in 2008. 

According to a Wall Street Journal blog, back then there was stevia sweetener Rebaudioside A. Now UK company PureCircle, in conjunction with Coca-Cola, has launched Rebaudioside X, which “may work better in low- and zero-calorie sodas”.

Add this development to comments from Nooyi in February and we have a new front in the decades-long cola wars.

Nooyi said PepsiCo is developing new sweeteners and flavourings that could “alter the trajectory of the cola business”, and though we are still waiting for more details on what those innovations are, she has since warned that the soft drinks industry has just three years to shake up the CSD category before consumers walk out on it.

Behind all of these sweetener moves is concern over rising levels of global obesity, partly by consumers, but also by legislatures. Coca-Cola has spent this year tackling the issue more directly than it has before, starting with an anti-obesity ad aired across the US in January, in attempt to head off more campaigns such as New York mayor Michael Bloomberg's banning of large sugary drinks.

So while Coca-Cola Life is, for the time being, confined to Argentina, it is already a weapon in the on-going global obesity debate, and one that Coca-Cola will surely deploy in other markets.

It should not expect any support from health campaigners, however. When the new Sprite was launched in the UK, campaigners said the reduced sugar only created an illusion of health. “It gives the impression that that's a really healthy thing to do," one told The Huffington Post. “But it's still... calories of sugar.”