Natural Foods Merchandiser

Sweet success for stevia... finally

By Kimberly Lord Stewart

After decades of controversy, two sweeteners derived from the stevia plant may finally get their day in the consumer marketplace as something more than a dietary supplement. On May 15, Cargill introduced TRUVIA, a branded sweetener made from rebiana for use in foods and beverages. Within two weeks of the Cargill announcement, Arizona-based Wisdom Natural Brands shipped Sweet Leaf sweetener, made from steviol glycosides, to grocers across the country. Industry experts say with these two announcements, the race is on to gain consumer acceptance and brand awareness.

The first test will be in restaurants and coffee shops. "It will be a race to who can own the tabletop market," says Kantha Shelke, Ph.D., industry consultant from Corvus Blue. Shelke believes that consumers will form their first impression of rebiana or stevia when they try it from the little packets at the coffee bar or restaurant table. It is a low-risk approach, she says. "If it is a pleasant experience, the taste will linger in consumer's food memories and thus relieve any doubts." One of the drawbacks to previously tested stevia dietary-supplement brands is an aftertaste reminiscent of licorice. Rebiana and steviol glycosides contain no such aftertaste, according to both company reports.

As early as February 1986, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued import alerts for stevia, branding it as an ingredient that should be detained if labeled as anything other than a dietary supplement. Many saw the controversy as a political quarrel with the end goal of quashing competition with the emerging artificial sweetener market.

For now, TRUVIA and Sweet Leaf change all that. Why the attitude adjustment? Even though the simultaneous release of Sweet Leaf and TRUVIA could easily be compared to a David and Goliath corporate competition, both companies used the same sling shot — a route called "self-determination of GRAS status." This allows for the safety of the product to be decided by the views of experts, as long as there are significant published, peer-reviewed studies available in the public domain. Wisdom Natural Brands and Cargill both hired teams of stevia experts (with FDA experience) to garner enough scientific support for each of their respective ingredients.

For Jim May, CEO of Wisdom Natural Brands, who introduced stevia to the U.S. marketplace from Paraguay in 1982, achieving self-determination GRAS status was a hallmark moment. After decades of defending the safety of stevia, May had enough proof in March 2008 to move stevia up on the food chain, thus allowing it to be sold on the sugar shelf, rather than relegated to the dietary-supplement aisle. "No pun intended, but for me, this day is sweet victory," May said.

For Cargill, the TRUVIA announcement was no less sweet. In partnership with Coca-Cola, Cargill spent years evaluating the ingredient for safety and perfecting ways to extract what they consider the best-tasting component of the stevia plant — rebaudioside A. Research funded by Cargill and published electronically on May 16 in the peer-reviewed scientific journal, Food and Chemical Toxicology, demonstrated the safety of rebiana for use in sweetened food and beverages.

"It is important to note that TRUVIA is rebiana, not stevia," says Steve Snyder, VP/Global Business Director, High Intensity Sweeteners, Cargill Health & Nutrition. "Both stevia and rebiana come from the leaves of the stevia plant. Stevia is a sweetener that exists in the marketplace today as a dietary supplement. It is not a high-purity ingredient and its composition can vary widely — impacting quality and taste. Rebiana is a high-purity, fully characterized extract that is consistently produced to a food-grade specification by Cargill." (See the sidebar below for more on the difference between stevia, rebiana and steviol glycosides.)

Industry experts believe both forms of the no-calorie sweetener open new doors for the tabletop and beverage market, especially for consumers seeking an alternative to artificial sweeteners. Cargill plans to introduce a tabletop sweetener by end of year, though Coca-Cola has not announced the exact release date of its new TRUVIA-based beverages, citing competitive reasons. Wisdom Natural Brands began shipping its new Sweet Leaf sweetener to stores on June 2. Wisdom currently serves 99 percent of all natural product stores and thousands of grocery stores with its Stevia Plus brand.

The value of the alternative sweetener market is $915 million and continues to grow, according to Freedonia Group, a global research firm. Earlier this year the company said stevia (and agave) held the most hope for a widely accepted alternative sweetener. The reasons are many. First, according to recent research by the department of diabetes and endocrinology at the National University in Paraguay, steviol glycosides have no ill effects on blood sugar or blood pressure in patients with type 1 or type 2 diabetes. Secondly, there is little argument about stevia being deemed a natural ingredient, which is an ongoing debate between the sucralose and sugar industries. And, since it is a non-GMO product, widespread acceptance in Asian and European markets is another plus. According to the Stevia Association in Paraguay, the product has applications in:

  • Beverages (low-calorie or no-sugar drinks) and milk drinks
  • Candy, ice cream, yogurt, jams
  • Canned and jarred fruits
  • Sweet and sour foods, sauces, pickles
  • Gums and candies
  • Table sweeteners
  • Toothpaste

Rebiana Refresher

  • Stevia typically refers to a crude preparation (powder or liquid) made from the leaves of the stevia plant. Such preparations contain a mixture of many components, not just those that give a sweet taste to the leaf. Because the exact composition of the mixture is unknown, studies that have used "stevia" are often difficult to interpret.
  • Steviol glycosides are the sweet components of the stevia leaf. There are various kinds of steviol glycosides, but the two most abundant types are stevioside and rebaudioside A.
  • Stevioside is the most abundant steviol glycoside in the stevia leaf, and the most studied.
  • Rebaudioside A is the best-tasting steviol glycoside. It is broken down by the body into the same basic parts as stevioside.
  • Rebiana is a 97-percent pure extract of rebaudioside A. It is the first high-purity, well-characterized form of rebaudioside A.
  • Steviol is the substance produced when the body breaks down steviol glycosides in the colon.

Source: Cargill, Overview of the Rebiana Research Program, May 2008

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