End of Obesity on the Horizon with Stevia and Monk Fruit

The growing fashion for less conventional slimming solutions has seen companies continue to innovate in reduced sugar food and beverages sweetened with natural high intensity sweeteners: Stevia – and now also monk fruit. Organic-reduced sugar is being born. While stevia sweetened products are thriving in the US and the chase for the first global brand in Europe is on, monk fruit, in direct competition to stevia, is already on the horizon. Could this be the end of obesity?

Although obesity is multifactorial, i.e. caused by a number of diverse factors, sugary drinks, in particular, are routinely being blamed as a major contributory cause of the global obesity epidemic. From a common sense point of view, the logic behind the accusation is compelling: one litre of a standard cola carbonate contains 420kcal, and all from sugar. The consumption of eight litres of cola (or any other standard carbonate beverage) per week, which is not an unrealistic quantity by any means, amounts to the caloric equivalent of 1lb of body fat. So, it is quite easy to see how substituting standard carbonates with low-calorie alternatives might make quite a significant difference to a person’s body weight in the medium-to-long term.

Only natural low-calorie drinks could stop rocketing childhood obesity levels

Low-calorie carbonates, however, have traditionally been suffering from two major handicaps: first of all, consumers are irked by their slight aftertaste, and, secondly, they are burdened by their perceived artificiality. Stevia’s natural halo, by contrast, shines brightly, and the ingredients industry is on the cusp of resolving the aftertaste issue. And monk fruit extract has it all going on: not only does it tick the natural box, it is also aftertaste-free. Its penetration into mass-market soft drinks is currently still hampered by its relatively price compounded by a supply bottleneck, as well as having to await legal approval in some geographies, like the European Union. It is only a matter of time until these hurdles are overcome.

The discovery of stevia-based sweeteners as a natural alternative to the widely used – but much maligned – high intensity sweeteners, including aspartame, acesulfame K and cyclamate, can only be described as a Holy Grail moment for the industry. The perceived “chemical” nature of these sweeteners have put many people off, in particular parents, who are not at all keen on serving these products to their children. Needless to say, we are all aware of rocketing global childhood obesity levels. One 330ml can of a standard soft drink supplies almost 10% of the daily calorie needs of a ten-year-old child. Incidentally, fruit juice, which, for many parents, constitutes a preferable choice over a “fizzy drink”, does not fare much better in terms of caloric content.

Stevia sparks juice revolution

And it is precisely the juice sector, where stevia is really coming into its own. Right now, stevia-sweetened, low-calorie juices are in the process of revolutionising the sector. The naturally healthy aspect of juice is a major point of attraction, particularly for 100% juice, but its high calorie content – due to naturally-occurring fruit sugar – has made weight-conscious consumers wary of the category. Products with less than 100% juice tend to either have added sugar or artificial sweeteners, which is in direct conflict with its natural image, giving health-conscious consumers yet another reason to avoid juice. The magic of stevia, however, allows manufacturers to reduce the juice (and thereby calorie) content without sacrificing either sweetness or naturalness, and even allows organic low sugar varieties to emerge.

PepsiCo is one of the global soft drink companies that have struck gold with Stevia. It’s Tropicana Trop50 brand, a 50-50 blend of juice and water and sweetened with stevia, has been extremely successful in the US since its launch in 2009. In less than 3 years, Trop50 value sales reached US$160 million, claiming an 11% share of off-trade volumes in the nectars (25-99% juice) category in 2011. In May 2012, PepsiCo introduced its latest round of flavour & brand extensions, including a Red Orange variety, plus an entirely new line, combining juice and tea.

The company considers Trop50 to be one of the most successful new product launches over five years, and it is easy to see how a reduced-calorie, all-natural fruit juice fills a previously gaping niche. For consumers wanting keep their calorie intake in check while still enjoying a nice glass of “natural” juice with their breakfast, products like Trop50 offer the perfect solution. In this regard, monk fruit extract, by virtue of being derived from a fruit, offers even greater potential. Once this highly promising sweetener manages to overcome the few existing teething problems, low-calorie soft drinks, and in particular the juice category, are set to enjoy another serious boost in popularity.