The scene is set for stevia to shine, so long as its past does not set precedent

The scene is set for stevia to shine, so long as its past does not set precedent

Consumer trends, along with government pressure and drinks companies' calorie pledges, mean the future for stevia is bright, regardless of its chequered past. Richard Corbett explains.

Stevia has been big news in the soft drinks industry since 2008, when the US Food & Drug Administration first authorised its use in the country. The decision triggered a domino effect, with Europe following suit in late-2011 and, more recently, India and Brazil permitting its use.

The problem for stevia is that while it has been big news in the industry, it hasn't really been big news among soft drinks consumers.

Building awareness of the plant-based sweetener and promoting its positive credentials among consumers will continue to prove a challenge for soft drinks companies. Until this can be achieved, the consumer audience for stevia-sweetened products will remain niche. Drinkers need to know why they should be buying drinks where stevia has been deployed.

Of course, it is not the only problem that needs to be addressed. The small matter of taste is also hindering the development of this new segment of the market. Some flavours and drinks are better-suited to stevia than others. Colas and lemon & lime seem to conceal the bitter after-taste that some complain of better than others. Juice drinks, iced teas and squashes also seem to have proved popular vehicles for stevia use.

Other drinks and flavours do not work as well, as Coca-Cola discovered when it changed the formula of Vitaminwater in the US to include stevia, two years ago. A social-media backlash against the new 'strange taste' forced the company to revert back to the original recipe.

Other teething problems have also been raised, one being a lack of consistency caused by the different chemical forms and different growing areas. Stevia produced in different parts of the world will inevitably produce varying tastes, however subtle. A global brand needs to taste the same in Austria as it does in Zambia.

Perhaps the most-pronounced handicap for stevia is that no product has yet managed to demonstrate there is any real customer appetite for mid-range calorie products. Efforts to lower the calorie content of Coke Life from a third to 45% of regular colas have failed to turn the variant's fortunes around in the UK. People seem to want no calories or the full sugar hit: All or nothing.

Coke Life - Coca-Cola's niche soda that tried to be so much more - Click here for a just-drinks comment

The 'cons' column, then, does seem to be filling up quite briskly, and one might be forgiven for thinking that the prospects for stevia-sweetened drinks are currently muted. Stevia producer PureCircle, however, is more optimistic, putting its money where its mouth is by investing in a new Malaysian site to double its total group production.

I tend to agree with this more positive position.

PureCircle cites the plethora of countries poised to implement - or debating whether to bring in - a soft drinks tax. Soft drinks taxes based on sugar content will make stevia a valuable tool in limiting a drink's liability to a tax. When the French introduced a soft drinks tax in 2012, stevia-sweetened products were exempt from the levy.

In some markets, the drinks industry is actively looking to lower the calorie content of its drinks anyway: Stevia will play a role in attaining this goal. In the US, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Dr Pepper Snapple Group have all pledged to reduce beverage calories consumed in the country by up to a fifth in the next decade, or sooner. Meanwhile, iIn the UK, before the impending tax was announced, the major players had a put in place a 20% calorie cut target. Retailers have also demanded that soft drinks aimed at children cut back on the sugar content, with UK retailer Tesco going so far as to delist some very well-known brands, forcing them to conform.

It is not necessarily consumers that will drive demand for stevia, then, but governments, soft drink producers and retailers.

The halo has also slipped from the juice category in recent years, as sugar again establishes itself as an issue for consumers. Many juices work quite well when stevia is utilised to dilute the sugar content, and a sizeable opportunity has become apparent. Already, a number of prominent brands, such as Tropicana, have adopted Stevia in some of their variants.

The hostility that has built up against artificial sweeteners in the US has plunged the low-calorie segment into decline in the country, serving as further indication that there is definitely space for stevia. These concerns may not be too animated in Europe yet, but they may be in the future, and this will facilitate consumer awareness of stevia. Coca-Cola's repositioning last month of Coke Life to 'niche' status in Europe can be blamed at least in part on consumers' lack of understanding of stevia.

It remains early days for stevia. In time, consumers will become more educated on its merits; how long did it take for 'organic' drinks to take root? In the meantime, this natural sweetener will play an important part in the battle to lower the calorie content of soft drinks around the world, even with limited customer understanding.

As for Coke Life, my bet is that, niche or not, it will still be around in ten years' time.