New Technologies to Spell the End of Stevia?

Next year, a new generation of stevia sweeteners produced by fermentation instead of extraction is going to hit the market. In other words, the leaf of the stevia plant will soon be surplus to requirements. On the one hand, this is great news for the industry: it will save costs and provide a more consistent product with a superior taste profile. But it also means that stevia’s already wobbly status as the only “natural” low-calorie sweetener is about to be thrown into even greater jeopardy.

Stevia sweeteners 2.0

In February 2015, US agricultural and food products giant Cargill announced that its food ingredients arm, in collaboration with Swiss food technology company Evolva Holding SA, had successfully developed a method of producing stevia sweeteners by means of fermentation, thus foregoing the laborious process of extracting them from the leaf of the Stevia rebaudiana plant. The product is expected to be ready for launch in 2016.

Cargill is, of course, not the only ingredients player going down this route. US company Stevia First, for example, reported last year that it was working on developing microbial fermentation processes with the aim of producing steviol glycoside sweeteners.

One of the most exciting aspects of this development is, without doubt, the potentially huge improvement this could bring to the taste profiles of stevia sweeteners. At present, commercial extraction focuses chiefly on stevia’s most abundant active compounds, particularly rebaudioside A, or Reb A for short. Its drawback is a characteristic, slightly bitter, liquorice-like aftertaste, which has so far limited the amount of stevia-derived sweetener that could be added to products, as well as the range of products it can be used in.

According to Cargill, the stevia leaf contains around 40 different glycosides. Some of these occur in such small concentrations that commercial extraction is just not viable, though they may well be far superior in taste. Cargill’s project with Evolva has made it possible, for example, to produce rebaudioside M (Reb M) on an industrial scale. This glycoside makes up less than 1% of the leaf, but, according to the company, it is virtually devoid of the lingering aftertaste the industry has so long been battling to mask and/or eliminate.

Natural demand

Demand for stevia has soared. Our ingredients data show that global volume consumption of stevia shot up from 35 tonnes in 2008 to 926 tonnes in 2013 – a 26-fold increase. It is by far the most dynamic of high-intensity sweeteners, clocking up 16% volume growth in 2013, compared to just 1% for high-intensity sweeteners overall.

However, it is clear that, in volume terms, stevia still has a lot of catching up to do: in 2013, stevia accounted for just 2% of global high-intensity sweetener consumption. Aspartame, the most popular type, exceeds stevia consumption 20 times, and Saccharin 10 times.

It is hardly a surprise that manufacturers are searching for ways of producing more stevia faster and, of course, cheaper. According to an industry source, stevia leaves account for around 70% of the cost of stevia extract production.

Stevia’s major point of attraction is its perceived “naturalness”, based on the fact that it is made from the leaves of a plant. None of the other major high-intensity sweeteners – aspartame, saccharin, acesulfame K, sucralose and cyclamate – can claim this coveted characteristic. Their synthetic nature has always been a turn-off for consumers. The reason these sweeteners were able to thrive was, in great part, due to the absence of a natural low-calorie sweetener alternative that was also commercially feasible. Stevia finally filled that aching gap, and the industry is busy reformulating.

In February 2015, Kraft announced that it was to replace sucralose and high-fructose corn syrup with sugar and stevia leaf extract in its Capri Sun fruit drinks brand in the US. The company said that the reformulation was a response to growing parental demand for more natural ingredients in children’s beverages.

Stevia not safe from scrutiny

We have to remind ourselves, though, that the naturalness of stevia has long been contested in some quarters. In 2013, for example, the US consumer watchdog Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) brought a lawsuit against Cargill for marketing its stevia-based Truvia as “nature’s calorie-free sweetener”. According to the CSPI, there was nothing natural about the multi-step, solvent-assisted process through which the Reb-A steviol glucosides were extracted from the leaf.

The CSPI does make a fair point, and the industry should rightly worry about the erosion of stevia sweeteners’ natural image. High-fructose corn syrup, the product of a complex enzymatic processing technique by which maize (corn) is turned into one of today’s most publicly maligned sweeteners, serves as a cautionary tale.

A lack of naturalness wasn’t much of an issue in the 1950s, when the technique was invented, but in today’s world beset by crippling chronic health issues, consumers are looking with growing suspicion at the factors that have changed in their food supply to identify the likely culprits. Whether their conclusions are always scientifically sound, is another matter, but once the reputation of an ingredient has been sullied, it is almost impossible to restore its good standing.

The moral of the story is that the mere fact that a product is based on an innocuous raw material is not sufficient to pull the “natural” wool over consumers’ eyes, and manufacturers should do everything they can to steer clear of this particular minefield.

Differentiation is the future

As for the evolution of stevia sweeteners, despite these concerns, technical progress is not just going to grind to a halt. The market was more than ready for a new sweetener, and demand for alternatives to standard offerings is going to remain high in the foreseeable future. Extraction processes will become ever more sophisticated and fermentation holds much promise for becoming a game changer in terms of price, versatility and organoleptic quality.

It is only a matter of time before stevia sweeteners undergo differentiation where their positioning and marketing is concerned. In the future, we may well start to see “made from stevia leaf” appearing on product packaging, to distinguish it from stevia sweetener produced via “less natural” fermentation. Organic stevia-derived sweeteners, which are already available, will also gain in importance and prominence.