Growers are benefiting from stevias popularity

Growers are benefiting from stevia's popularity

It is 30 times sweeter than sugar, and on the tip of the soft drinks industry's tongue. But, is stevia, a natural sweetener, about to replace artificial rivals such as aspartame in the world's best-selling sodas?

At first glance, it looks like it might. Just last month, Canada approved the use of stevia in beverages and food, the last major beverage-consuming nation to do so. Meanwhile, earlier this week, the European Food Safety Authority launched a full public consultation on the safety of aspartame, the latest in a long line of reviews that have dogged the sweetener since it emerged in the 1980s.

It may be little surprise, then, that, in 2011, stevia was the fastest-growing high-intensity sweetener, shifting 338 tonnes compared to just two tonnes in 2007, according to EuroMonitor figures. By 2016, that number is expected to increase four-fold, although will still be some way behind market leader aspartame.

New products containing stevia are increasingly appearing on the market - a stevia-sweetened Diet Pepsi and Del Monte's Naturally Light range are two of the latest - as the industry gets to grips with a product that has only been in use in the US since 2008.

Meanwhile, producers of the stevia plant, which is mainly grown in China and Paraguay, are benefiting from the boom. In the US, PureCircle saw net sales jump 80% in first-half figures last week, while Sweet Green Fields plans major increases in acreage after a bumper 2012 crop.

But, with sweeteners, it's not simply a question of using one instead of another. As Richard Laming at the British Soft Drinks Association puts it, think of them as a colour instead of just black and white.

“They are lots of single things mixed together,” Laming says. “Sweetness isn't a single thing, it's a combination of lots of different things.”

So far, Laming says, stevia, which can carry a bitter after-taste, is being used as something to add to the mix. “It's an example of the soft drinks industry offering a wider choice,” he said.

One area where stevia does hold the upper hand over its chemical-lab rivals is its “natural” label, used to market to a growing band of health-aware consumers. A Euromonitor report last year said stevia is being positioned by the drinks industry differently to other sweeteners, with a focus more on healthier, everyday living rather than dieting concerns. This means it will likely be most prevalent in juice drinks and ready-to-drink teas, Euromonitor said.

Stevia's destiny, however, will ultimately be decided by the beverage buyer.

“There are many in the soft drinks industry that are very interested in what it can offer consumers,” Laming says. “In the end, though, the fundamental thing is: Do consumers like it?

"Products succeed not because the industry makes them, but because consumers like them.”