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Stevia: going places and some

Stevia’s growing popularity as a natural sweetener has drawn global beverage makers such as Coca-Cola to introduce it in leading brands such as Coca-Cola and Sprite this year, as companies aim to offer reduced-calorie soft drinks that don’t taste like diet drinks.

Stevia also has the advantage of costing 30% less than current sugar prices, analysts say. In 2011, world sugar prices were their highest for 30 years at approximately $700 a metric ton, according to Jonathan Thomas, principal market analyst at Leatherhead Food Research.

“People are more aware of what they consume because they are increasingly more health-conscious,” PureCircle chief executive, Magomet Malsagov, told The Wall Street Journal. “Because stevia is derived from a natural plant, that makes it sustainable and in line with what the broader food and beverage industry is moving towards.”

Malaysia-based PureCircle is the world’s largest producer of high-purity stevia, a processed product.

In 2012, there were just under 1,800 new product launches globally featuring stevia.

In 2013, market researchers are expecting at least 2,000, given that we’re only in July and we’ve already seen 1,100.

While the biggest markets remain soft drinks, the fastest growing application areas include dairy, and cereal & energy bars.

Growth areas include kids’ products, naturally-positioned/clean label sports nutrition products and dairy alternative beverages.

As for how much sugar is typically being replaced when stevia is used, in yoghurts it’s around 24%, in juices around 56% and in carbonated soft drinks, around 58%.

Source: FoodNavigator-USA at IFT 2013 Stevia Workshop

Last month, Coca-Cola launched a mid-calorie cola in Argentina — Coca-Cola Life — that combines stevia with traditional sugar to create a drink with half the calories of regular Coca-Cola.

Stevia sweetener is derived from a shrub native to parts of South America and is cultivated mainly in Paraguay and China. The stevia plant leaves contain steviol glycosides which are the sweet-tasting compounds. The most famous compound type is called rebaudioside A or reb “A”.

“The US FDA approval of stevia in food and drink opened the door for this market’s explosion,” said David Browne, senior analyst at research firm Mintel. The WHO in 2006 also declared that stevia as a natural sweetener is safe.

In the longer term, Malsagov said Asia would be a key growth area. “India will be a very big market for us because stevia is a very good fit culturally for the country, which already uses a lot of sugar in the food and beverage sector as well as natural herbal extracts,” he said.

According to data from research firm Euromonitor International, global consumption of stevia this year is forecast to hit 1,278 tons up from 129 tons in 2007.

While Euromonitor is optimistic for the growth of the industry, it warns that its potential remains limited by the few number of countries that produce stevia.

“Wider coverage will be vital to market growth and pricing,” said the research firm.

Other processors of stevia include Whole Earth Sweetener Co, Ingredion, Stevia First Corp and Sunwin Stevia International.

Going beyond Reb A

New opportunities for extracts from the stevia leaf that go ‘beyond Reb A’ are emerging. PureCircle has attracted much media attention, with recent announcements on its high-profile partnership with Coca-Cola to co-develop new steviol glycoside Reb X, and unveiling a ‘no objections’ letter from the FDA regarding the GRAS status of its Reb-D sweetener, which it claims has one of the best sweetness profiles of any steviol glycoside.

Meanwhile, Stevia First says it has made a breakthrough in producing Reb A through fermentation process. This is part of its “Beyond Reb A” research program, also aimed at producing the next-generation of stevia sweeteners, Reb D and Reb X, through fermentation-based methods.

Stevia First Corp claims it has demonstrated through use of fermentation technologies that it can produce desirable and high-value steviol glycosides from the stevia leaf that may be lower-cost, more abundant, and which are currently perceived as byproducts.

There are more than 30 different steviol glycosides found within the stevia leaf, including Reb A, the acknowledged current market leader due to its abundant sweetness and relative lack of bitterness, and next-generation Reb D and Reb X which may have superior taste profiles but which are found in much lower quantities within the stevia leaf.

As the most desirable steviol glycosides are rare within the stevia leaf, fermentation processes may have attractive commercial advantages for mass production. Using fermentation technologies, Stevia First says it may soon be able to quickly and reliably produce a variety of next-generation stevia sweeteners in an on-demand fashion and that could be further tailored to changing consumer demands for stevia.

Stevia tomorrow will be radically different

Quoted at the this week’s IFT Annual Meeting and Food Expo in Chicago, PureCircle’s VP global marketing and innovation, Jason Hecker, said that while the company is still losing money, it is uniquely positioned to meet the needs of global food and beverage companies because its business model is designed for a mass volume natural sweetener market, and that its investments in building manufacturing capacity and a vertically integrated supply chain will ultimately pay off.

In future, said Hecker, the winners in the stevia market will be those that can cash in on all the key components of the stevia leaf. They will also need expertise in plant breeding to develop varieties with higher levels of minor glycosides, the ability to produce them efficiently and to work with customers to use them alone or in blends in multiple applications.

One thing is clear, he noted: “What’s on the market now and what will be in the market in 12-18 months’ time will be radically different.”

Stevia use grows globally amid regulatory, formulation issues

The global journey continues for the stevia industry, but it comes with obstacles. Companies must navigate regulatory issues country by country. Formulators must climb steep learning curves formulation by formulation.

More than 1,100 new products that use stevia as a sweetener already have been launched globally in 2013, said Lu Ann Williams, head of research at Innova Market Insights, Duiven, The Netherlands. Stevia, a natural, zero-calorie, high-intensity sweetener, now ranks among the top five non-nutritive sweeteners used in new product launches.

Williams spoke July 14 before a standing-room-only crowd during a presentation at the Institute of Food Technologists’ annual meeting and food exposition in Chicago.

The top category for launches with stevia remains soft drinks, but the number of dairy launches with stevia is growing, she said.

Other categories show promise. Stevia may fit well in the cereal bar and energy bar category because the category has a natural image. Juice makers may charge more of a premium price for products with stevia because artificial sweeteners are more likely to damage the consumer image of juice, which they may view as more of a natural product.

There are “gaps in the market” for the use of stevia in children’s products and sports drinks, Williams said.

Earlier this century the market opened for the use of stevia in foods and beverages in the United States, the European Union and Canada. The International Stevia Council expects India, Indonesia and Thailand to approve the sweetener’s use later this year, said Maria Teresa Scardigli, executive director of the Brussels-based organisation.

She said companies that wish to sell stevia extracts or stevia-sweetened products in multiple countries should be aware of differing regulations.

For example, stevia extraction involves taking steviol glycosides, such as Rebaudioside A, out of the stevia plant. In the United States 9 types of steviol glycosides are approved for use while 10 are approved in the European Union, 5 are approved in China and 4 are approved in Japan. The approved food categories and the use levels in each of the categories also differ by country.

“There is a lot of difference in formulating based on the regulations you have,” Scardigli said.

Besides the regulatory front, companies may face a “steep learning curve” when formulating stevia into various food and beverage categories, said Melanie Goulson, food science and applications manager for Minneapolis-based Cargill. She has led a research team that has logged more than 80,000 hours working with stevia extracts.

“One conclusion we can make today is there are just no drop-in solutions,” she said.

She said formulators should focus on five areas: targeting use levels, boosting sweetness, managing the sweet-sour balance, creating mouthfeel and optimising taste.

Using sweetener blends may be the best option for beverages, said John Martin, global, director, technical development and innovation, for PureCircle. The mid-calorie category may be a good fit. Fruit flavours or acidic-type flavours may work well with stevia extracts in beverages, he said, b flavours from strawberries may cause more problems.

While beverage formulators may need to avoid an unwanted, lingering aftertaste with stevia, dairy formulators may need to build sweetness up front, or immediately when the consumer tastes the product, Martin said.

Sources: Wall Street Journal, Food Ingredients First, FoodNavigator-USA, FoodBusinessNews