Many multinationals like PepsiCo have taken advantage of the development of stevia

Many multinationals like PepsiCo have taken advantage of the development of stevia

Beyond the initial hysteria over stevia, it seems that, for some manufacturers, the plant-based sweeteners are no silver bullet.

Stevia burst onto the soft drinks scene around two years ago following regulatory clearance of several ranges from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In Europe, France and Switzerland have given the green light and suppliers are waiting for Brussels to formally rule on its use throughout the EU. Sources say the ruling is likely to be positive.

Sweeteners derived from the stevia plant have significant advantages. They are 200 sweeter than sugar and are also derived from plants, which means they fits into the consumer trend for natural ingredients. US regulatory approval has, therefore, led to more food and beverage manufacturers turning to the stevia when developing low-sugar products.

Indeed, no sooner had the FDA given approval, The Coca-Cola Co announced the launch of Sprite Green, its first stevia-sweetened product, and PepsiCo wasn't far behind with the launch of a stevia-sweetened range under its SoBe Lifewater brand.

In the following buzz, stevia has been hailed as one of the most significant developments in sweeteners in recent years. However, it is not all sweetness and light. There have been challenges, specifically on taste, price and supply.

Several high-profile companies remain sceptical about how widely stevia can be used.

Derek Yach, senior vice president of global health policy for PepsiCo, told just-drinks that the uptake of stevia by some firms has been relatively slow, which he believes may be down to the complexity of achieving the right taste.

"We have got a market that contains things called consumers and they tend to be rather fussy about taste," Yach says.

"Each of these natural sweeteners have got upsides and downsides, some tend to work well in, say, a juice ... but that same stevia in a cola product doesn't do as well. So there won't be one magic sweetener that will be introduced, either in food or in beverages, but I suspect you will see an increasing diversity of sweetener options, probably each adapted for the particular product."

According to Yach, then, stevia is not a magic bullet, but is likely to form part of a new generation of natural sweeteners.

Yach said that PepsiCo is looking at a "fuller" range of natural sweeteners. "We have teams scouring the world looking at natural colours coming from plants particularly, and natural flavours and spices drawn from ancient cultures and so on. That is increasingly going to become the norm," he said.

This is not to say that the stevia plant won't stake its claim as a mainstream sweetener source for years to come.

Stevia supplier PureCircle recently launched a global consumer marketing campaign for its sweetener range, while also signing joint ventures with German food ingredients group Dohler and French sugar giant Tereos for the marketing of stevia.

In July, PureCircle said it had sacrificed short-term profits in order to prepare for an expected boom in food and drink industry demand for sweeteners derived from the stevia plant. Many other top ingredients companies have also developed stevia ranges.

Yet, the concept of stevia as a sweetener has been around for decades, so why has the ingredient only risen to prominence now?

PurceCircle's finance director, William Mitchell, told just-drinks that the reason is that stevia products have "much higher purity and consistent composition than 20 years ago".

He said: "PureCircle technology has enabled the isolation and refining of individual stevioglycoside molecules. This means that for the first time there is a consistent stevia food and beverage ingredient that can be clinically tested and can be formulated on a consistent basis."

It is also clear that companies worldwide are responding to a consumer trend for 'natural' ingredients in both drinks and food, as has been the case for several years.

What has also become clear, however, is that the stevia plant is not a magic bullet with which companies can burst onto the 'natural' scene. Instead, stevia points the way to a new era of sweeteners, based on fresh science, research and innovation. Stevia is a part of the future, but it is not the future.