How big a role can stevia play in combating the obesity epidemic?

How big a role can stevia play in combating the obesity epidemic?

This month, Ray Rowlands, of independent research agency Drinksinfo, focuses on the issue of soft drinks-related obesity and the potential opportunities that this offers for stevia, the natural sugar-free sweetener that is hogging the headlines this month.

The spectre of obesity continues to loom large over the soft drinks industry, with France now preparing to join other markets in imposing taxation hurdles to counter excess consumption of sugary drinks. Other measures used to curtail intake includes the banning of soft drinks in schools. But, is this really stabbing at the heart of the problem? 

FoodDrink Europe, which represents the European food and drink industry, claims that soft drinks represent less than 3.5% of the daily calorie intake of French consumers. Campaigners ignore the high sugar content in products such as biscuits, cakes and chocolate, it argues. Meanwhile, the banning of soft drinks in schools tends to overlook the fact that on-site sales of these products represent a useful source of income for educational institutions in these financially troubled times.

Moreover, not all sugary drinks in schools are being prohibited, only the more obvious ones, like carbonates. Then, to cap it all, unless all school bags are regularly checked and lunch time breaks closely monitored, there is no guarantee that the kids are not indulging in illicit consumption.

The soft drinks industry has most certainly not been complacent in respect of the obesity issue, and public concerns thereover. Many suppliers actively support the banning of soft drinks in schools whilst continually looking at alternatives to sugar as the sweetening agent in their products. Yet, low-calorie options do not appear to be receiving the expected consumer support: As the global CSD market struggles to grow, low calorie options, for their part, are failing to gain share. 

A number of artificial sweeteners have been employed by the beverage industry over the years including aspartame, cyclamate and saccharin. Whilst there is ongoing controversy over whether such artificial sweetener usage poses health risks, there is also the problem that, although consumers may try to curb calorie intake, they are not prepared to compromise on taste. Some established sweeteners have been reported to leave a bitter after taste, for example.

However, sweetener evolution is moving from artificial to natural sources and this is providing greater scope for development. 

One of the most talked-about natural sweeteners today is stevia, which comes in many commercial guises including PureVia, Rebiana and Truvia. Stevia extracts have up to 300 times the sweetness of sugar; not that dissimilar from certain other sweeteners in use, but a major plus point is that stevia is not from artificial stock. It contains zero calories and is reported to be a great option for diabetics because it will not spike blood sugar. It is no real surprise, then, that it is attracting increasing interest as a natural, low-carbohydrate, beverage sweetener.

However, stevia is not finding an easy path to success.

It was only in December 2008 that it received FDA approval in the US as a natural, plant-derived, non-nutritive sweetener. The European Food Safety Authority subsequently gave a positive safety assessment of stevia in early 2010, but it is still not commercially available in the EC, despite achieving temporary support in France (2009-2011) and in Switzerland. On a more positive note, full EU approval was formally approved in November this year. Meanwhile, the sweetener has had had many years of safe usage in other countries. Schweppes Australia is reported to already be using stevia across its CSD range whilst Fanta (a Coca-Cola brand) has employed it in Turkey.

Europe is fairly crucial to stevia development. According to PureCircle Ltd, which claims to be the world’s leading producer of stevia sweeteners, the region accounts for a quarter of the global sweetener market. This represents an even larger contribution than the US. Europe is also of a similar standing to the US in respect of CSD consumption. Although stevia has been used in a variety of soft drinks, including ‘water plus’ and sports and juice drinks, the sheer size of the CSD category means that it is key for the stevia industry to establish itself. Moreover, whilst US CSD consumption is contracting, the European market is in growth. 

The stevia market is certainly on the rise. Pure Circle calculates that worldwide consumption of high purity stevia should be more than 50% higher at the end of 2011 than it was in 2010. But, while companies such as The Coca-Cola Co and Schweppes are already using stevia, there remain reservations about how large the market could become.

With criticisms in respect of previous sweeteners, consumer education is a fundamental issue that must be addressed to support its rise. After almost three years exposure in the US, it is doubtful that the majority of the country’s population are even aware of stevia.

Then, there is the price hurdle, especially when many economies are still feeling effects of recession. Stevia prices may prove prohibitive for many companies, but should fall, over time.

Taste also remains a concern. Some stevia formulations have been criticised for a bitter liquorice after-taste, though PureCircle, for one, is already working on more acceptable formulations (e.g. Alpha).

If this is still an issue, the hope must be that consumers retrain their taste buds or, alternatively, just turn on the tap.