Annette Farr

Annette Farr

Last month's European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) ruling on the safety of the all-natural sweetener stevia is likely to prove historic, believes Annette Farr. The EFSA's scientific panel has assessed the safety of steviol glycosides and established an Acceptable Daily Intake for their safe use.

Steviol glycosides are intense sweeteners extracted from the leaves of the stevia plant (Stevia rebaudiana). These substances, such as stevioside and rebaudioside, range in sweetness from 40 to 300 times greater than that of sucrose.

The EFSA ruling is expected to result in an EU-wide approval of the all-natural, zero calorie sweetener within the next six to nine months and, with obesity issues still to the fore, set in train significant new product development among European beverage manufacturers.

It's only a matter of time. Any ingredient which is plant-derived, all natural with zero calories has to be a crowd pleaser and soft drinks companies are currently being tasked by governments to reduce the calorie content of their high sugar CSDs.

Hitherto, Europe has been slow to jump on the stevia bandwagon. Japan has used this sweetener as its main non-sucrose source for more than 30 years. Other countries which allow the use of steviol glycosides include China, Russia, Korea, Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, Indonesia, Israel, Australia and New Zealand. In the US, too, stevia extracts with no less than 95% purity of steviol glycosides have been awarded 'generally recognised as safe' (GRAS) status by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Grown in China, Egypt, India, South-East Asia and Latin America, stevia now looks set to become a global phenomenon.

A new report entitled 'The Global Market for Intense Sweeteners' from Leatherhead Food Research forecasts that, by the middle of the next decade, natural sweeteners could account for up to a quarter of the market. "Stevia represents one of the most dynamic sectors within the global intense sweeteners market by far," the report notes, "with sales having risen dramatically since the middle of the last decade as a result of increasing uptake within the US food and drinks industry.”

Leatherhead reports that, between 2007 and 2009, the global market for intense sweeteners increased by almost 19% in value terms. Much of the recent growth has resulted from stevia gaining regulatory approval within the US where PepsiCo and The Coca-Cola Co were quick off the mark in developing products sweetened with it.

The stevia market is active on a number of fronts - not just brands incorporating stevia into their formulations, but also within its harvesting, supply and distribution.

Last month, the US company Kraft Foods launched Crystal Light Pure Fitness, claimed to be “the first nationally available low-calorie fitness beverage” made using Truvia, a brand of stevia developed by Cargill which Coca-Cola also uses in beverages like Odwalla and Sprite Green.

In France, Coca-Cola has reformulated Fanta Still with stevia only three months after the French government approved a form of the natural sweetener. (France is the first European country to approve a stevia sweetener under a rule allowing member states to approve ingredients for a limited two year period, before full EU approval is given.) Adding stevia to the drink allows Coca-Cola to reduce its sugar content by around 30%.

Meanwhile, suppliers are positioning themselves for what is likely to become a very competitive market.

Canada-based global stevia supplier GLG Life Tech, for one, has just signed a definitive agreement in South America with Essentia Stevia, covering the distribution and marketing of its stevia extracts throughout Latin America. The company has also signed a memorandum of understanding with Sugar Australia, for the distribution and marketing of its stevia extract products in Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and the Pacific Islands.

The EFSA ruling opens up further opportunities. “This is a significant step forward for the industry," says GLG Life Tech's executive vice president of international affairs, David Bishop. "We tripled production capacity of our high quality stevia extracts during 2009, which positions GLG Life Tech to meet anticipated demand for the European marketplace.”

PureCircle also believes the announcement is an important step forward. The company's European vice president, Peter Milsted, says: “Our customers will be extremely encouraged by this announcement. It is a strong sign that European consumers will soon be able to choose naturally sweetened, reduced calorie products based on stevia, just like consumers in many other parts of the world.”

It is not all sweetness and light, however. There are challenges, significant amongst which are taste, price and supply. In a survey carried out for The Global Stevia Industry Perceptions Report 2009, presented at February 2010's Stevia World Americas conference, respondents clearly indicated that elimination of after-taste is the most critical issue, followed by masking of taste.

And whilst the price of stevia-derived sweeteners is prohibitively high for many manufacturers at present, Leatherhead observes this is attributed to the sector’s early stage of development, with prices expected to fall once more manufacturers invest in extraction, processing and refining capabilities.

Further, 77% of respondents to The Global Stevia Industry Perceptions Report agreed that stevia suppliers will invest in plantations, and 82% agreed that there will be long-term supply deals.

Sourcing of stevia leaves is a major concern for buyers due to varying 'stevioside 'content. Flavours can vary according to where the plant is grown and harvested. The survey indicated that Latin America remains the preferred choice, followed by South-East Asia. The world’s largest stevia producers, India and China, only rank third and fourth. The survey concluded that “concerted efforts are needed by governments in China and India to provide incentives and technology access to produce stevia leaves of market quality.”

The most significant challenge, however, is to build consumer awareness. At present, the average European consumer will not have heard of stevia. Leatherhead says consumer research has shown that up to 70% of Americans have not heard of stevia, and that 60% are not interested in trying it.
 
All it takes will be a few positive headlines in Europe's media for the stevia bandwagon to get rolling. For once, it really is a question of watch this space.