Reb-A to spark sweetener revolution?

Boom in sales predicted through ingredient and tabletop channels

Key players in the market for stevia extract Rebaudioside A are bullish about the prospects for the zero-calorie sweetener, following its authorisation by the American government and ahead of expected approval by the European Union. In particular, the US Food and Drug Administration's decision to confer Generally Recognised as Safe status on Reb-A has prompted a frenzy of activity among suppliers of the all-natural ingredient as they gear up for an expected surge in demand.

Among them is Malaysia-based PureCircle, which supplies Reb-A directly to Pepsico, Merisant and Cargill, which in turn has an arrangement to on-supply the ingredient to the Coca-Cola Company.

PureCircle, which deals only in stevia-derived products, is investing heavily in its vertically integrated infrastructure to boost production. In China, it is quadrupling the capacity of its stevia extraction plant to 4,000 tonnes. It is also to double output at its refining plant in Malaysia to 2,000 tonnes of high-purity Reb-A. In addition, the company is making major investments in Kenya and Paraguay.

The reason for the scale of this commitment is, according to Peter Milsted, PureCircle's vice president of sales and marketing, that "everybody wants the product. We believe that Reb-A can revolutionise the way we sweeten all foods," he told Functional Ingredients. "We want to grow this market such that it is used right across the food and beverage categories. We do not see Reb-A as being a niche ingredient — we will make it a mainstream ingredient. We are diversifying our supply chain to give us the ability to produce extract on three continents. It is a natural ingredient, so it's not like turning a tap on and off."

Rival supplier GLG is also ramping up its capabilities in the wake of Reb-A gaining GRAS status. In China, the company is building new plants that will increase GLG's raw stevia-leaf processing capacity from 5,000 tonnes now to 41,000 tonnes — an uplift of 720 per cent. It is also developing new strains of stevia seeds, which have a naturally higher Reb-A content.

But it isn't just in the ingredients sector that the mood is upbeat about Reb-A's prospects. There are high hopes for it in the tabletop sweeteners market, too, particularly at Merisant.

The Chicago-based company was facing an uncertain future until recently, due to problems refinancing debt during the credit crunch. But it obtained approval from the US bankruptcy court in January to continue trading and restructure its debt to allow it to focus on the launch and marketing of its PureVia tabletop sweetener brand, which is a blend of Reb-A, erythritol, isomaltulose, cellulose powder and natural flavours.

Paul Block, Merisant chairman and CEO, said he believed Reb-A-based products could come to represent as much as half of the world's $1.6 billion market for tabletop sweeteners, compared with just 1-2 per cent now. "I think it's really going to grow disproportionately," he added.

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