Willy Wonka's chocolate factory has nothing on this place. The Coca -Cola Innovations laboratory in Brussels is chock-a-block with weird and wonderful prototypes that promise to change what consumers drink - and the way they drink it.

It's highly conceptual stuff and would normally be kept well away from the prying eyes of the press. But last month, The Grocer was given an exclusive look around the lab and shown some of the cutting-edge innovations currently on trial.

The tour starts in the Kolab, a plush suite of rooms charting innovations from Coke, via Tab, Fanta, Dasani, to the latest developments: Minute Maid Cell Defence and Nutri Top Up, launched in the UK this September, and Diet Coke Plus, on shelves from this month.

The showcase for Coke's global brand portfolio spans a myriad of water brands, stacks of baffling Chinese and Japanese beverages, juices, smoothies and coffee and tea-based drinks.

Further on there are even wackier offerings. Bottles in which ice forms as if by magic; beverages that claim to help skin appear younger; and concoctions that apparently combat the effects of a cold winter, a hot summer or damp autumn.

In another room are packaging ideas: from outlandishly large cans to tiny round bottles; containers that glow in the dark or have animated, spinning labels; dainty aluminium cans, feather-light glass bottles.

In recent years Coca-Cola has been under pressure to diversify into healthier soft drinks. This year alone it has bought American water company Glaceau, Brazilian tea and beverage maker Leao Junior, and Serbian juice company Fresh & Co. But it's clear from our visit that NPD, rather than acquisition, remains the favoured flavour.

"Innovation is part of our DNA," says Olivier Enthoven, director, customer innovation centre, Europe. "From the invention of Coke itself to pioneering open-topped coolers in the 1920s, to Diet Coke Plus."

Though the Brussels lab is smaller than its Atlanta HQ counterpart, it has developed about half the company's 2,000 patents, from the new Minute Maid products to the entire Powerade range, including the new orange one launched this week (see p57) as well as new packaging formats such as tiny round ball-like bottles developed as part of Coca-Cola's involvement in the Football World Cup.

There are plenty of other ingenious projects on the go at the lab. But intriguingly, Coke boffins are finding inspiration not just from taste trends, or technology per se, but from socio-economic and demographic changes, including 10 'mega trends' it has identified, such as age-blurring (60-year-olds buying iPods); CSR; convenience; and more demanding consumers.

Top of the list at the moment are drinks that offer health and wellbeing benefits. "It is no longer good enough for a drink just to quench your thirst," explains Enthoven. "It now has to be a total experience, encompassing all five senses and feeding as many needs as possible."

This functional drinks movement was the inspiration for Coke's biggest launch this year, Diet Coke Plus, which comes in two somewhat surprising 'variants': one with vitamins B3, B12 and vitamin C; the other containing antioxidants with added green tea and vitamin C.

As a global company, Coca-Cola closely monitors developments in all its markets and looks to adapt them. For example, it is currently scrutinising the trend in China for drinks that help you feel better today by boosting energy or lifting your mood but also claim preventative powers.

Indeed it's in the interests of cross-cultural collaboration that Coca-Cola has just announced plans to open a new research centre in China. For this all-American company is doing its level best to adapt within a new global paradigm, which it describes as 'glocalisation', a movement that is anti-American and pro-local.

Other trends Coca-Cola is aiming to tackle are no less surprising: the shortage of water, which "is set to be the big issue of the 21st century," Enthoven believes, and a diminishing sense of safety and security. "People are afraid about terrorism, the economy, their pensions, and so on."

You may well be wondering how a fizzy drink manufacturer - even one as creative as Coke - could hope to tackle terrorism? Next the Coke boffins will be telling us they've dreamed up a soda for the sub-prime mortgage market.

But drinks that help consumers feel good about themselves are increasingly important, Coca-Cola believes. In particular, one of the biggest areas of investigation, not just for Coke but for the entire industry, are beverages containing supplementary ingredients such as prebiotics, says development and consumer communications director Michelle Kellerhaus.

"There is more and more evidence that prebiotics (which boost bacteria in the gut aiding digestion) have a positive effect on health," she says, "and more and more drinks appearing that make these claims."

Green issues are another big concern for the company and there's lots of work going on at the lab to reduce the environmental impact of products, says Mike Gambel, director EU innovation, design and development.

Work ranges from lighter glass bottles and bio-plastics, to the creation of solar-powered fridges. It will be a while before these appear on a commercial scale, says Gambel, but a Greenpeace-accredited cooler is now available for retailers. With an intelligent thermostat that turns itself off when the store is closed, and starts again in time for the store's opening, the unit cuts energy costs by 35%. "We hope some elements of this cooler will soon be fitted as standard on all Coke fridges," Gambel adds.

Other concepts include counter-top coolers, attention-grabbing units with flashing black lights, interactive fridges with where you can download computer games from video screens, and units with removable shelving to make filling easier.

Of course, NPD is a risky business and very few inventions actually make it to market. Among the ideas that ended up in the reject room are a sports drink packaged in a pouch that would wrap around an arm, much like an iPod armband, which was abandoned when the material proved too fragile.

There was the heart-rate and sweat monitoring bottle, which could tell you how much liquid to imbibe to remain hydrated, which proved far too expensive to manufacture on a global scale.

A net bag of perfectly round Fanta bottles that resembled a bag of oranges was scrapped after transport logistics and the issue of displaying in-store proved insurmountable.

A personal favourite for Gambel was the Hallowe'en drink that 'magically' changed colour but unfortunately turned a murky shade of brown when exposed to too much light, and thus never made it on to shelves.

Despite the risks, however, Coca-Cola remains as committed as ever to NPD. Currently it is involved in developing what it terms a 'Shopper Beverage Landscape', tracking consumer purchasing habits, profiles and needs on a global scale.

It's hardly an inspiring name. But fortunately, Coca-Cola is happy to let its products do the talking. n