Soda manufacturers aren't oblivious to the signs: sugar is going out of style. With more and more people eliminating soda like Coca-Cola from their diets in an effort to reduce their sugar intake, the beverage industry has found itself in some dire straights. Unfortunately, it's not as if Coca-Cola can simply switch out sugar for artificial sweeteners. Something about the real deal is just impossible to replicate. So, the search for new, alternative sweeteners that can pass taste tests with flying colors is in full swing. And Coca-Cola has turned to crowd-sourcing.
Coca-Cola recently launched a competition to discover the next "sugar" on the crowd-sourcing platform HeroX. According to this description on Coca-Cola's corporate website, Coke is seeking "a naturally sourced, safe, low- or no-calorie compound that creates the taste sensation of sugar when used in beverages." The winner of this competition will be awarded $1 million in October 2018.
Why is this such a big deal? Because if someone is able to discover a compound that can fool our tongues into believing that it is sugar while avoiding all the health hurdles that sugar presents, it can be incredibly lucrative for the beverage industry.
Of course, finding a sugar source alternative is nothing new. Over the years, diet colas have found their following and many people enjoy them. However, the current artificial sweeteners have their challenges. They don't just not taste like sugar, they also come with a host of safety questions and regulatory headaches.
Why Is It So Hard to Find An Alternative?
Our love of sugar predates homo sapiens. Back when we shared a common ancestor with apes and chimps, fruit sugars provided a large source of energy and we began to seek it out. Over the millennia, not much has changed. Humans still love sugar.
Interestingly, because humans have a genetically ingrained affinity for sweets, even the most highly engineered sugar substitutes cannot fool our tongues. Even if we can't quite put our finger on it, you just know that something is off.
So, in an effort to find something that can trick our tongue, the search has moved away from the chemistry lab. Scientists are now focusing on naturally sourced compounds.
Already scientists have produced a few plant-based sweeteners including ones containing stevia and monk-fruit. However, due to bitterness and issues with the aftertaste, they are not as popular as hoped. As a result, Coca-Cola is excluding these fruit compounds from the competition.
It remains to be seen what scientists and at-home chemist dream up. But, whoever manages to win the grand prize with likely also earn the gratitude of the entire beverage industry for years to come.