The natural high-intensity sweetener stevia, which is legally allowed to be used in products within the 27 EU Member States from 2 December 2011, has been heavily reported to have a bitter aftertaste. However, Pure Circle, a leading stevia supplier, and Coca-Cola, through a partnership with Cargill, use Truvia in their products and report that bitterness is no longer a problem. Whilst the taste of stevia-sweetened brand extensions will differ slightly from their sugarised counterparts, bitterness is no longer there and these variants could be considered simply as different flavours of the standard drink.
Unlike other high-intensity sweeteners such as aspartame and saccharin, which are often used in combination with one or two other high-intensity sweeteners, Coca-Cola reports that the best sensory performance achieved with stevia is when combined with sucrose, a combination the company uses for its Fanta Still, which is available in France, and Nestea Green Tea Citrus in Switzerland. Other products that contain stevia, such as Nescafé Mocha, 7-Up and Lipton Ice Tea Green, presented at Food Ingredients Europe & Natural Ingredients 2011 in November 2011, all reportedly do not have a bitter aftertaste.
The bitter nature of stevia is the only obstacle to an otherwise innovative introduction into the sweetener world, and Luc Aelterman, Coca-Cola's Research and Development Director for Europe, Eurasia and Africa, confirms that the sensory aspects of stevia offer advantages but also present some challenges that need to be overcome, such as the liquorice element as well as the lingering sweet taste in the mouth. This bitterness can not only be overcome by combining stevia with sucrose but also through the use of other ingredients. However, these additions remain intellectual property within companies and so surely the fight to be the first to launch a tasty, reduced-calorie beverage containing stevia is one that is likely to be kept quiet. This is especially true for companies focusing on health such as Coca-Cola as according to Thalia Constantinidou, Director of Scientific and Regulatory Affairs, Innovation & Nutrition, 30% of the company's beverage portfolio in Europe is made up of low and zero-calorie beverages.
Even though calorie content is reduced, market leaders are unlikely to make weight management the prime positioning of stevia-sweetened reduced-sugar beverages. On the one hand, product formulation may not always meet the current legislation for diet or low-calorie drinks, while on the other hand it may restrict a product's target market. According to Sidd Purkayastha, Vice President of Global Technical Development & Support at Pure Circle, the main focus will be on the naturalness of the products and the new flavour that is being offered to consumers, with the lower calorie count displayed on the packaging but not necessarily being the prime focus.
Is it a case of full steam ahead?
Stevia is currently a hot topic in Western Europe and with the strong natural trend present within beverages and packaged food it is highly likely to create a storm when the products hit the shelves. But which products are likely to reach consumers first, and where?
Coca-Cola told Euromonitor International that careful consideration is being given to which, when and where stevia-containing products are to be launched, which will take place in select markets in the first half of 2012.
Whilst stevia is unlikely to replace sugar due to a different sensory perception, in the short term it will undoubtedly go from strength to strength as it can not only target the natural trend but also other more niche trends such as the fact that brands like Truvia are safe for diabetics as they do not change the blood glucose profile nor affect blood pressure. The global rise of both cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes will no doubt play to stevia's strengths as an ingredient for weight management.