The Story Behind Pepsi's Upcoming, "Scientifically Advantaged," Low-Calorie Soda

Last Updated May 13, 2011 2:24 PM EDT

In a New Yorker article this week about PepsiCo's (PEP) ambitious attempts to create healthier and "scientifically advantaged" products ("Snacks for a Fat Planet"), writer John Seabrook details a newfangled soda in Pepsi's pipeline that could be in coolers and shelves everywhere within the next six months. He writes:
[It's] a cola that is supposed to taste like regular Pepsi but that has sixty per cent less sugar. I heard it described around headquarters as "a very big deal." It uses "flavor enhancers"-- biotech products that are not sweet themselves but increase the intensity of sweeteners, to re-create a full-sugar taste.
If the scenario Seabrook describes sounds bizarrely high-tech, that's because it is. What he's referring to is an ingredient made by a company based in San Diego called Senomyx (SNMX). The company, which has been operating since 2000, signed a deal with Pepsi last August after a previously arrangement with Coca-Cola (KO) fell apart.

At the time the deal was announced, Pepsi's chief scientific officer Mehmood Khan said Senomyx would help Pepsi identify "new ingredients that can lead to healthier products" and "ultimately help people around the world live healthier lives." Pepsi paid Senomyx $30 million upfront with another $32 million possible over the next four years.

Magic ingredients, now with no disclosure!
So what exactly is this magic ingredient that will be appearing in a new version of Pepsi, and how is it made? Unfortunately, those questions are hard to answer. Senomyx gives its products opaque names like S2383 and S6973 and refers to them only as "enhancers" or "ingredients" -- it doesn't like the word "chemical." The products work by triggering receptors on the tongue and tricking your taste buds into sensing sweetness -- or saltiness or coolness, in the case of the company's other programs.
And unlike zero-calorie sweeteners such as sucralose, aspartame and stevia-based ingredients, Senomyx's enhancers are needed in such small quantities that they fly under the labeling radar. They can be identified on ingredient lists only as "artificial flavor," a category that could include a million and one other things.

It's unclear which Senomyx flavor enhancer Pepsi will be using. Senomyx has a product that amplifies the taste of sucralose (also known as Splenda), one that boosts regular sugar or sucrose and a third that enhances fructose. If Pepsi is aiming for a soda that has 60% fewer calories but tastes almost identical to the regular, old school, high fructose corn syrup-sweetened Pepsi, then it may be using the fructose booster.

So are Senomyx's covert ingredients safe? That, too, is anyone's guess. The company says that many of its enhancers have "been granted" GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) status, but all that means is that the company did its own assessment and then concluded everything was fine. We don't know whether Senomyx did any testing since the company isn't required to submit anything to the FDA.

There's no reason to think that Senomyx's products will cause harm, but until or unless Pepsi decides to share details about how exactly it's achieving a 60% reduction in sugar while keep the taste the same, customers will be drinking their "scientifically advantaged" sodas completely in the dark.

Image by Flickr user Conor Keller
Related: