Sprite's Stevia Makeover: Experts Question If New Recipe Is Healthier For People With Obesity, Diabetes

Last week's announcement that Coca-Cola would tweak its U.K. Sprite recipe to include stevia as an ingredient comes amid growing concern that sugary soft drinks are contributing to an obesity epidemic affecting both sides of the Atlantic. But will stevia really make Sprite healthier?

Stevia is a no-calorie sweetener derived from a plant of the same name. In recent years, food and beverage makers -- including Coca-Cola -- have sought to harness the ingredient in low and lower-calorie drinks; it was approved by the FDA in 2008.

The new Sprite will be made with a combination of stevia and sugar, which may help combat the bitter aftertaste sometimes associated with the former ingredient. Coca-Cola is still exploring the possibility of changing the recipe for Sprite in the U.S., a company spokeswoman told the Associated Press.

The U.K. move comes as Coca-Cola rolls out a global anti-obesity campaign, which includes an ad that aired in the U.K. this week for the first time. The spot had previously debuted on U.S. airwaves in January and will appear on television in other countries in the future, although a list of nations has not been released. It states that obesity "concerns all of us," but stresses that soda isn't the only thing to blame for problematic weight gain.

That's true -- consumption of excess calories of any kind will pack on the pounds -- but the new stevia recipe only shaves off 30 percent of the calories in the original version. That means that going forward, a 20 oz. bottle of Sprite with 250 calories will have about 175 calories. The decrease -- which is notable, though small -- concerns experts like Dr. Sharon R. Akabas, a director at Columbia University’s Institute of Human Nutrition.

"It gives the impression that that's a really healthy thing to do," she explained in an interview with The Huffington Post, "but it's still... calories of sugar, which has no nutrients." Akabas worries that the couching of the new stevia Sprite against the backdrop of an anti-obesity campaign will provide a false sense that the product is healthy, creating what she calls a "healthy halo effect."

"Any time you use reduced this or reduced that … reduced to what?" she said. "Better in some people's minds translates to healthy, but it's not … it's still really junky."

There's also worry that those who suffer from obesity-related illnesses, like Type 2 diabetes, will lump the stevia Sprite in with other diet drinks that have 0 calories. Toby Smithson, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietics and the founder of DiabetesEveryDay.com, thinks the new recipe may muddle the already complicated question of 'What is healthy?'.

"I do think there will be confusion for PWD (people with diabetes) with a product that is marketed as lower or less," she wrote in an email to HuffPost. "PWD often get confused with items that are marked 'no added sugar,' and define that as 'all I can eat,' when the real story is there are still carbs and calories in the product."

According to the most recent data posted in 2011, there are about 25.8 million people in the U.S. living with diabetes. Reports from 2012 suggest this figure is 371 million globally.

In response to these concerns, Coca-Cola offered the following statement to The Huffington Post:

When it comes to achieving energy balance, all calories count -- whether from soft drinks or any other food and drink. Reducing the calorie content of Sprite, one of our largest brands in the U.K., by 30 percent is a positive move because it can help people reduce their calorie intake.

We do not make any nutritional claims about Sprite in our marketing. We know people choose it because it is refreshing and great tasting. It is now refreshing and great tasting, but with 30 percent less calories.

We have also reformulated brands like Fanta Orange, Oasis and Lilt to reduce their calorie content by between thirty and fifty-six per cent, whilst one in three of the drinks we sell in the UK are low- or no-calorie. This figure is rising.

There's still another issue complicating things for diabetes sufferers -- in February, reports surfaced that a new French study suggested an association between consumption of "light" or diet soda and increased risk of Type 2 diabetes. Although the study could not prove that consumption of such drinks led to a diabetes diagnosis, it did note that participants who drank more artificially-sweetened beverages tended to have greater sugar cravings than those who drank the drinks' regular counterpart.

Akabas brought up this point as well. "So the stevia people want us to focus on whether stevia is good or bad," she mused. "I think it's important to bring people back to the question of whether soda is healthy or not for the human diet."

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