Every bold new flavor or clever package starts as an idea. As Coca-Cola North America’s Chief Technical Officer, Nancy Quan zeroes in on the best of those ideas and figures out how to get them to market. Here, Quan talks about the latest thinking related to low- or no-calorie drinks, state-of-the-art bottles, and other innovations shaping Coca-Cola’s future.

What opportunities are you excited about in the marketplace right now?

There is a lot happening that is very interesting. Lots of innovation in the more natural and organic space, and around differentiated sensory and flavors at lower sugar levels, as well as an incredible amount of innovation in the packaging space to offer more premium and smaller serving sizes through an interesting look at how packaging can play a key role in this space.

Part of your role is to focus on the science of sweetness and alternatives to sugar. How do you approach the challenge of creating low- or no-calorie options that still taste good?

The most critical for us is to balance taste with reducing calories and reducing sugar. The natural sweetener journey has been very interesting, because when you’re looking for a natural ingredient, it comes from nature as is; it’s not something you can change or modify. Sometimes that gives you challenges in taste -- it may result in unwanted lingering notes, for example -- and other times challenges in supply, especially if it is not prevalent in large quantities in nature today.

We’ve been on this journey trying to find the best toolbox, and it really is a toolbox, not one magic bullet. When you mix those ingredients together, it gives you the nicely balanced sweetness profile and taste you’re looking for. We have different partnerships around the world working with us to find these next great tasting ingredients.

However, once you find it, it’s only the beginning. There is still a big piece of work to identify the optimal supply chain, especially as you work with plant ingredients that require time with the growing cycles. Additionally, the regulatory approval process for new ingredients is something that also takes time to ensure everything is approved for use in the various countries.

Then, of course, getting the ingredients into products is an art in itself. Finding the right balance and optimal flavor for the desired consumer taste in a stable beverage can sometimes be challenging, especially if the consumer is used to a different sensory profile.

Let’s talk about packaging. How does that play a role in the company’s goals going forward, from an innovation standpoint?

Our innovative PlantBottle packaging, the first-ever fully recyclable PET plastic beverage bottle made partially from plants, continues to grow and expand. We have more than 43 billion bottles now around the world. Our technology and our research teams are looking at how to continue driving the price down of the PlantBottle packaging. We’re also continuing to work on light weighting as well as smaller packs that actually use less PET [polyethylene terephthalate, used for plastic bottles] but still maintain the shelf life.

We launched a small PET bottle in India that’s definitely delivering some exciting results. This bottle was developed with breakthrough technology. The team has done a great job working through how to bring different thinking to enable smaller packs that give us some competitive advantage and capability in shelf life, as well as cost.

What led to the choice of India for the bottle launch?

This bottle has an opportunity for a broad application in many markets. The reason we started in India is to reach the population in rural areas that we are not necessarily reaching today due to cost, as well as shelf life. If we send a standard PET bottle out there, because of the extreme conditions with temperature and humidity in India, the shelf life is restricted through natural loss of carbonation over time. This new pack provides an improved shelf life, and because it is able to be delivered at a smaller size, offers a packaging format at a reduced cost. Together with our bottling partner in India, we’ve been able to make this innovation a reality.

What challenges are you focused on going forward?

Whether it’s a small PET bottle or improved sweeteners, innovation, especially breakthrough innovation, takes time to realize the size of the opportunity. Discovering and identifying the technology is only the beginning. The supply chain and scaling the system to enable that pack or product to get into market is a whole other story. That’s always a challenge for us.

We are always trying to understand where the consumer is going next and how do we innovate in new spaces? What’s the next generation of juices, dairies and other products? How do we evolve their taste profile with exciting new products? How are people going to be consuming beverages in the future? There’s a lot of opportunities for us to continue to drive exciting new beverages for consumers in this rapidly evolving landscape. That’s what makes our job extremely interesting, yet at the same time keeps us up at night.