Are consumers losing a little of their taste for Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO)? There's no reason to push the panic button because the beverage giant's fourth-quarter profits came in flat, due to a restructuring charge. However, unit case volume only gained 1% in North America -- a major market -- making one wonder if Coke's losing momentum in our soda-guzzling society.

Coke reported fourth-quarter earnings of $0.38 per share, or $927 million, as compared to $0.38 per share, or $930 million, on a quarter-over-quarter basis. That number includes an $0.08 a share charge for Coke's streamlining efforts. The company's fourth-quarter revenues increased to $5.18 billion from $4.8 billion.

When it comes to North American case volume, the percentage growth has been decreasing; last year this time, the company booked a 5% increase on this continent.

The company said it is experiencing growth in its non-carbonated drink line, hardly surprising when you consider today's healthy trends. It reported growth for both its Dasani water product, as well as Powerade sports drink. The trend was also noted by competitor PepsiCo (NYSE:PEP) in its fourth-quarter results, which showed success for Aquafina and, in particular, Gatorade.

However, Coke said that juice demand continues to be low, a factor that's likely impacted by low-carbohydrate diets that are changing consumers' shopping habits. In its conference call (transcript courtesy of CCBN StreetEvents), the company said that one of last year's big launches, Vanilla Coke, is still viewed as a key contributor in 2004.

The question that remains is how the remaining seemingly endless Coke variations are faring -- Diet Coke with Lemon springs to mind, which was quickly followed by Diet Coke with Lime (which struck me, personally, as some serious citrus overkill).

Right now, Coke's archrival seems a little newer, hipper, and fresher, if you consider the Pepsi logo's prominent placement on the popular and chic Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) iTunes site. (Along those same lines, several Foolish community members noted Coke's marked lack of advertising during the Super Bowl on the Coca-Cola discussion board.)

Although Coke had a recent victory swiping Subway's fountain business from its rival Pepsi, the battle for ground isn't over yet. Soft drink watchers on both sides of the Coke/Pepsi fence are keen to changes in soft drink vending in schools. While it may seem a peripheral issue, the truth is, marketers know the importance of the schoolyard hook.

Coca-Cola shares drooped as investors ingested the earnings news. The stock's been flirting with its 52-week high of late, and the earnings just didn't seem to provide the promise of an exciting year to come. A warning that a higher tax rates could stunt 2004 earnings didn't help. While Coke may not have lost its flavor, it may need to work on its freshness.

Is Coca-Cola too high profile a stock for your taste? Are you looking for stocks that are not on Wall Street's radar? Consider trying out The Motley Fool's Hidden Gems newsletter.

Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned, though her consumption of Diet Coke is renowned.