Packaged Beverages: What’s the Next Big Sweetener?

The art and science of balancing flavor and health is no small feat

Kevin Klock remembers when Sparkling ICE was first in high demand; it was in his living room.

Klock, CEO of Preston, Wash.-based TalkingRain Beverage Co., which manufactures the fast-growing sparkling-ice brand, harkened back to family occasions in the Seattle area, when relatives made sure they secured a bottle of Sparkling ICE. This was the late 1980s, before the zero-calorie, flavored sparkling-water brand made a national splash.

When Klock moved to California, neighborhood kids went to great lengths to get their hands on the product. “I had a cooler of Sparkling ICE in my garage,” Klock said during a Beverage Buzz webinar, hosted by Wells Fargo Securities, New York, earlier this year. Kids found their way into Klock’s garage to pilfer the cooler of refreshments, he said, putting a new twist on the concept of grab and go.

These days, Sparkling ICE has a national following. Top retailers across grocery, mass and drug chains churn out as many as 100 cases a week in sales, said Klock. The brand is charting its way into mass c-store-channel distribution thanks to a growing network of DSD affiliates.

What’s the secret to Sparkling ICE’s growth? Artificial sweetener sucralose—derived from sugar—is an additive that’s helped Sparkling ICE achieve the high level of flavor and taste that Klock and his team sought out, along with zero calories and a refreshing kick. To many beverage-industry experts, sucralose has an advantage in the artificial-sweetener camp and has shed the negative implications that have shadowed others.

In a perfect world, beverage makers would probably opt for natural sweeteners as the de facto blending component. A natural-sweetener alternative such as stevia might have been on Talking Rain’s formulation radar, but it didn’t fit the bill. “I hope I am the one who invents a natural sweetener [for Sparkling ICE], because then I can retire,” Klock joked.

Other beverage processors are on the trail to achieve the gold standard of flavor and health. The Coca-Cola Co. and stevia producer PureCircle in late December received approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for PureCircle Rebaudioside M, or Reb M, as a general-purpose sweetener for foods and beverages in the United States.

The FDA rubber stamp could be the springboard Coke requires to launch more low-calorie beverages and counter the sales drop that’s bedeviled diet carbonated soft drinks. Coca-Cola and PureCircle have a five-year supply agreement—punctuated by a mission to seek global intellectual property coverage for the Reb M ingredient.

High-purity Reb M (also known as Reb X) has a taste closer to table sugar than previous stevia ingredients, according to the company, allowing for deeper calorie reductions in food and beverage products, particularly those with higher levels of sweetness.