I’ve been watching with interest as the UK starts to digest its new sugar tax.  Everyone wants a solution to the obesity epidemic, there’s no argument about that, but there’s no clear evidence globally that sugar taxes reduce obesity.

Here in New Zealand, Coca-Cola has one of the widest drink portfolios in any market around the world. Beverage companies are working towards providing more choice in soft drinks and juices. The fact is, if you feel like a drink to kick start your morning, or something more special to have over lunch with friends, sometimes water just doesn’t cut it. People still have the desire for drinks that taste good, but don’t necessarily want the sugar. They want the same taste as the drinks they grew up with, but don’t want the kilojoules. And they want food and drink to be the product of sustainable practices, but still want to pay reasonable prices. There has always been some sort of trade-off for shoppers.

Coca Cola South Pacific
George Droumev, Coca-Cola South Pacific Technical Director

My job as Technical Director for Coca-Cola South Pacific is to solve all of these challenges through research and development. It isn’t daunting, our job is to rise to the challenge. Sometimes it takes years, but when we get it right it’s a great feeling.

Our team and our partners have spent almost ten years working with stevia, a sugar alternative from a natural source - the stevia plant. It’s far more complicated to use in drinks than you might think. It’s not as simple as just saying “here’s a sweetener sourced from the stevia leaf, let’s just throw that into the recipe as an alternative to sugar.” It has to taste good and it has to feel good in your mouth. You could make a drink that ticks most boxes but it wouldn’t make a difference to people’s lives, or health habits, if they didn’t want to drink it.

We’ve been working towards increasing the amount of stevia we can use as a sugar alternative across our drinks portfolio while still having a drink that tastes good. We’ve just launched Coca-Cola Stevia No Sugar - our very first Coca-Cola product sweetened only with stevia. And last year we introduced Keri 50% Less Sugar Fruit Drink by using stevia.

The stevia leaf has been used for more than a century. It originates from South America. It’s up to 200 times sweeter than sugar (meaning we can use far less) and has no kilojoules. Stevia has been known to leave a bitter aftertaste, we needed to fix that. Our team of experts, along with our stevia partners have become pioneers in using the sweetness from the leaves of the stevia plant, making it sweet but also taste good without the bitter aftertaste.

In my time working with Coke across the globe, I can say New Zealand is one of the most challenging countries. People in this part of the world expect more. The market is diverse and competitive. I remember the first time I visited Auckland and commented to my taxi driver about how impressive the Sky Tower was. His immediate response was that it is two metres taller than the Sydney Tower.

Although Stevia is native to South America, it’s now also being grown in Asia and Africa. We want our beverages to be sustainable. Stevia farming, extraction and purification requires less water and energy to produce the same amount of sweetness found in other sweeteners derived from natural sources. In addition stevia requires little land and provides an opportunity to diversify crops, an important component of environmental sustainability and healthy ecosystems.

The techniques we’re using to create beverage recipes with less sugar, the reduced size of our servings and clearer labelling show that we’re taking public health and wellbeing seriously. People’s wants and needs are always evolving and so we have to keep innovating to stay relevant with those who are looking for a range of drinks to fit their lifestyles and needs. We think we’re getting closer and closer to producing beverages without the trade-offs and without being compelled to do it through a tax like in the UK.