First, the challenge was its bitter aftertaste. Now, the natural status of stevia – one of the key features of the ingredient that sets it apart from other high intensity sweeteners – has come under fire, particularly in Western Europe. Given that stevia – or steviol glycosides – is classified as an additive, it cannot be called ‘natural’ in the EU, which could be seen as a threat to its success. Yet there is no sign that this is going to affect its performance in the region: newly published Euromonitor data shows that in 2012, Western Europe overtook China to make it the third largest market for stevia ingredients in the world, behind the USA and Japan.
Steviol glycosides, the sweet compounds of the stevia leaf, are not consumed as a food on their own and are added to food and beverage products to perform a technical function. Therefore, by definition stevia is an additive, E960, and cannot be labelled as a ‘natural ingredient’ in the EU. Yet being naturally sourced is one of the key advantages that stevia has over its artificial competitors like acesulfame K and aspartame. Not being able to label it as a natural ingredient however may limit its uses in the EU, according to Professor Jan Geuns, President of the European Stevia Association (EUSTAS).
The argument surrounding stevia’s naturalness also stems from how it is processed. The extraction of the steviol glycosides requires the use of solvents and ion exchange resins and is performed on an industrial scale. “Yet the purification of steviol glycosides is a similar process to that of sugar from beet”, Professor Geuns says, “but as a food, sugar can be called natural”.
Here for the long-haul?
Yes. Euromonitor forecast growth rates for stevia are 10 times higher than those of its competitors aspartame, saccharin and sucralose. That said, in absolute terms, the stevia market remains relatively small and given its technical limitations, it is unlikely to widely replace other high intensity sweeteners in the medium term.
Absolute growth of consumption of stevia as a food and beverage ingredient, 2012-2016
In Western Europe, the majority of stevia as an ingredient is consumed in soft drinks – mainly bottled water, fruit and vegetable juice and carbonates. In 2012, 10% of stevia was consumed in dairy products, but this is expected to double to nearly 20% by 2016, thanks to large companies such as Arla and Danone taking up the ingredient. We believe the additional consumer marketing muscle of these types of players will establish Stevia’s status over the longer term.
Breakdown of stevia consumption as a food and beverage ingredient
Although it cannot be labelled as natural, stevia’s plant-sourced credentials are still something that manufacturers are interested in and consumers will want to believe in. New technical developments, including the launch of a stevia-based syrup in the US by Steviva that has the potential to replace HFCS, will drive acceptance. Stevia, despite being another E-number, has innovation on its side.