February 5, 2024

Swiss soft drinks producer Vivi Kola had the bright idea, last year, of creating the world’s first natural drink, made purely using artificial intelligence alone. It was called Vivi Nova, with a recipe created by ChatGPT, the much-hyped AI tool from US-based artificial intelligence research organization OpenAI.

The food and drinks industry has seen robotics and machine learning come into the sector in many areas from food processing to the development of meat substitutes. However, this was claimed to be the first time that a brand decided to develop a drinks recipe using AI alone.

The branding was also an AI adventure led by Midjourney an independent research lab that describes itself as “exploring new mediums of thought and expanding the imaginative powers of the human species” through the medium of AI.

OpenAI defines AI as “highly autonomous systems that outperform humans at most economically valuable work”. But does that stretch to consumer tastes when it comes to food and drink?

Vivi Kola
The original 1938 label.

Gambling on an AI future

The first fully AI-engineered soft drink was a worthwhile experiment by Vivi Kola, a brand that has been in the market since 1938 when it launched the first Swiss cola under its brand name.

Legend has it that in the 1930s, the directors of the mineral spring in Eglisau, sent employees on a quest to Cameroon in Africa, the land of kola nuts, to find the mysterious bitter, caffeine-rich fruit and bring it back to Switzerland after which manufacturing promptly started. The label featured a world map highlighting the origin of the kola nuts: the country of Cameroon.

Eighty-five years later Vivi Kola – whose Swiss distribution stretches to more than 2,000 restaurants and other locations, embarked on an adventure of a very different kind and the result is Vivi Nova. The 100% natural craft soda has the following ingredients: water, cane sugar (3.5%), haskap berry juice (3%), lime juice from lime juice concentrate (1.3%), carbon dioxide, ginger juice from ginger juice concentrate (0.2%), and chicory root powder.

According to Vivi Kola, its product developers asked ChatGPT to share a ‘healthy vegan recipe and one of the outcomes was the recipe above. Next, the team went out and bought all the ingredients, mixed them up and started taste testing. At that point, they said: “We had to admit: this could work!”

The name Vivi Kola came up with – Nova, meaning ‘new star’ in Latin – was appropriate as it conjured up a futuristic, other-worldly concept while also fitting the company’s four-letter naming of its other products like Soda and Mate.

For the branding, the company said: “We ‘fed’ the Midjourney bot and the Unreal Engine  (a series of 3D computer graphics game engines) with a pretty boring image of the haskap berry, sat back and watched as it produced a highly detailed, futuristic, dreamlike image.”

The consumer verdict

Marketed as a “100% natural super drink”, Vivi Kola has posed the question: What do you get when you ask artificial intelligence to create a drink? That alone has been enough to build curiosity and encourage trial from both consumers and retailers.

Migros, a large Swiss grocery retailer was the first big player to stock the product last November and Vivi Kola has assessed customer reaction there and from its own collected consumer comments over six months.

The original product from the company.
The core product from Vivi Kola.

The verdict from Migros shoppers was mixed. Customer reviews varied from a full five stars to just one. Some were full of praise: “I like that it’s not so sweet. Doesn’t seem artificial at all”, whereas others were less so: “The design of the can is very attractive and modern. Taste is not convincing; quite bland, watery, tasteless.”

Across all the reviews many shoppers liked the product’s “natural” taste and non-excessive sweetness, describing it as refreshing and pleasant. However, some customers found it quite insipid, lacking in flavour, and unimpressive. The most important feedback that Vivi Kola has taken on board is that the drink could use a bit more sweetness.

This information was passed back to ChatGPT, with the result that the product now uses stevia (the natural sweetener) to lift the flavour of the recipe.

CAS, a division of the American Chemical Society, described Vivi Kola’s project as evidence that AI in the food industry is not only a tool but also “a catalyst for innovation”. It said that the collaboration with ChatGPT for the development of a low-sugar vegan beverage had reduced development time to just two days, streamlining production and cutting costs.

[The future of food will be revealed at the SIAL show this coming October during SIAL Talks, the platform for top-level international experts to discuss innovation in the food business.]

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