Whether described as ‘natural’ or ‘from a natural source’, against a background of rising sugar prices and obesity levels Stevia is an ingredient that should shake up the sweetener category and provide healthier products. Stevia has been well documented over the years but it hit the headlines in 2007 when Coca-Cola and agricultural giant Cargill announced a joint venture in the US to develop a zero-calorie sweetener derived from this South American plant.

That year they collaborated on the marketing of the product under the name Rebiana. This was produced by PureCircle, suppliers of the ingredient Steviol Glycoside Rebaudioside-A (Reb-A) – said to be the least bitter of all the Steviol Glycosides – and supplied to Cargill under an exclusive agreement. The following year, PureCircle extended its contract with Cargill on a non-exclusive basis.

Stevia is a high-intensity sweetener said to be 250-300 times sweeter than sucrose, but with none of the calories. It is isolated and purified from the leaves of the Stevia Rebaudiana Bertoni plant and the crude Stevia leaves and herbal powder are reported to be 10-15 times sweeter than table sugar.

PureCircle, originally a Malaysia-based company but now with offices all over the world, says it is the largest producer of Reb-A and claims the product provides consumers with healthy benefits such as no calories and a low glycaemic index, which makes it suitable for diabetics.

“It is the only rival to sugar which gives a very similar taste profile and is entirely natural, using no artificial chemicals, either in the cultivation of the plant or in the extraction of the key sweetening ingredient,” it says.

Regulatory approval

While it has been used as a sweetener in areas such as Asia, China, Japan and South America for many years, it only gained full approval in the US and Europe in 2008 and 2011 respectively.

Acclaimed as an ingredient that would revolutionise the way consumers eat and drink, Stevia never had an easy ride in the US and Europe and there were lengthy battles between the scientists and the legal eagles.

“Stevia is a high-intensity sweetener said to be 250–300 times sweeter than sucrose, but with none of the calories.”

The Food & Drug Association (FDA) in the US approved Stevia in 1995 but only for use as a dietary supplement, and any novel food is carefully monitored in the EU and gets the green light only when it has been rigorously tested on its safety across all levels.

Stevia had been considered many times before in the UK, and in 1999 the EC Scientific Committee on Food concluded that “the information submitted on the plant products was insufficient with regard to specification and standardisation of the commercial product and contained no safety studies”.

Only when it got the support of some of the industry’s global giants did it grab people’s attention. Even though Coca-Cola still planned to continue to use the artificial sweetener aspartame, it filed dozens of patent applications for the new ingredient in the US in a bid to get FDA approval.

PureCircle, Cargill and Coca-Cola’s determination to prove it was safe for use in food and drink saw the FDA granting it with GRAS (generally recognised as safe) status in December 2008.

Market growth

PureCircle has now sold Reb-A to 47 different countries, the US representing 40% of the overall revenue with strong growth in China, Mexico, Europe and Brazil. It says high-purity Stevia now has regulatory approval in most major markets. The key remaining countries are India, Canada, Indonesia, Thailand, Canada and South Africa. Approval is expected in these countries before the end of the group’s financial year 2013 and will give an additional 1.6 billion new consumers access to it.

In its latest financial results, released in September, PureCircle says that food and beverage launches with this high-purity Stevia are running at a rate of 1,000 new launches for 2012, a 65% increase over 2011, taking the total number of new products to more than 2,600. Dominating these launches are carbonated soft drinks, which represented the largest single category volume for the sweetener.

New global product launches since March this year include tabletop sweeteners, ketchup, confectionery, non-carbonated soft drinks and dairy. Europe now represents 50% of all new product launches.

Stevia has gone through many stages since making its debut – from the early products that had a bitter aftertaste to the high-purity Reb-A that is now available. In September 2012, Tate & Lyle (T&L) introduced a Stevia sweetener without the bitter flavour connotations, branded Tasteva. T&L had been working on it for the past two years and recommends using it to reduce sugar by 50%.

In September it was reported that PureCircle was closer to establishing its high-purity Stevia as a mainstream ingredient after signing a joint development and supply agreement with Coca-Cola. The agreement would entail both companies working together to develop new commercially viable ingredients.

More ingredients developed from the plant therefore are on the cards but, as the age old saying goes, the proof of the pudding is in the eating as far as consumers are concerned. The message also has to be got across to end-users who will be handling the products and needing to be able to explain them to consumers.

Stevia brand development

Historically, along with nutritional supplements, sweeteners were among the most common and the first of the product developments using Stevia in the US and two trailblazers were Cargill’s Truvia brand of tabletop sweetener and Wisdom Natural Brands with its SweetLeaf sweetener.

As well as Coca-Cola, Cargill has worked with rival Pepsico in developing new drinks. It teamed with PepsiCo along with Pepsi’s partner The Whole Earth Sweetener Company to supply Reb-A under its PureVia brand.

“While it has been used as a sweetener in areas such as Asia, China, Japan and South America for many years, Stevia only gained full approval in the US and Europe in 2008 and 2011 respectively.”

PepsiCo also extended two of its brands with varieties sweetened with Reb-A: SoBe Life Water and Trop 50, a low-calorie orange juice range extension of PepsiCo’s Tropicana brand.

Meanwhile, Coca-Cola extended its soft drinks portfolio in the US by using the ingredient in beverages such as Odwalla and Sprite Green, pictured right.

In 2011 Cargill established a partnership with Silver Spoon, part of Associated British Foods, to market and distribute Truvia tabletop sweeteners in the UK.

In March this year Coca-Cola launched Stevia-sweetened variants of Nestea and Sprite in France with 30% less sugar using the Truvia-branded ingredient developed with Cargill.

While beverages have been the major beneficiaries of Reb-A, the opportunities for other categories ranging from bakery and confectionery to dairy are growing. New Stevia blends have been showcased at the IFT 2012 exhibition in Las Vegas.

Cargill has been working with many manufacturers on both food and beverage applications using Truvia “with great success”, it says.

Cargill’s Truvia baking blend was launched this year – a product, it says, that is a combination of Truvia natural sweetener and sugar with 75% fewer calories per serving than sugar, but that bakes and browns like sugar.

It claims half a cup of the baking blend has 190 calories and provides the same sweetness as one cup of sugar with 760 calories and that a 1.5lb bag of the Truvia blend equates to the sweetness of 3lb of sugar – enough to make 13 pies, nine batches of cookies or six batches of brownies.

Cargill followed up the launch with a multimillion-pound marketing campaign in the US for the Truvia brand kicking off in September. It claims that since the introduction of Truvia natural sweetener, the sugar substitute category has grown 20%.

New this year is Del Monte’s Naturally Light low-calorie range containing half the sugar and calories of standard juice and juice drinks thanks to Stevia.

Three variants include: mango and papaya, pineapple and lime, and super fruits, each with just 50-63 calories per 250ml glass, which are targeted primarily at health and weight-conscious women as it offers a lower-calorie and lower-sugar alternative, while still providing the goodness of fruit, vitamins and hydration.

In August Britvic, which distributes soft drinks for PepsiCo in the UK, introduced Stevia extract into its Drench juicy spring water range. Drench juicy follows SoBe V water as the second Britvic product to contain the extract. All variants will include the extract, which will be flagged via a distinctive Stevia logo on packs.

Belgian chocolate specialist Balance has just launched its range in the UK, which has been made using Stevia. Balance has been sweetened with the Stevia extract in combination with the natural sweetener Maltitol and fibre, which play an important part in digestion.