It's a sweet time to be in the stevia business. Sugar prices skyrocketed to record highs at the end of last year, prompting industry to rethink its go-to sweetener. It wasn't until this past March that the Food and Agriculture Association of the United Nations reported some good news: the Sugar Price Index dropped for the first time after eight months of continuous price spikes, landing at 372 points.
Coupled with an alarming rate of diabetes in the United States and beyond, food formulations with natural sweeteners such as stevia are gaining traction in the marketplace. "Stevia is natural, has zero calories, has no effect on blood sugar and can replace sweet carbohydrate calories in the diet of adults and children who have diabetes," said Alan Rogol, MD, Ph.D., scientific advisory board member of the Global Stevia Institute. "Studies in both laboratory animals and humans with type 1 and type 2 diabetes have shown stevia is safe."
A study by Zenith International, a food and drink consultancy, estimates that worldwide stevia sales reached 3,500 metric tons in 2010, a 27 percent increase over 2009, taking its overall market value to $285 million. Zenith forecasts that the global market for stevia will reach 11,000 metric tons by 2014, equivalent to $825 million.
While innovation with stevia largely ceased in 2009 due to the economic climate, the "good ship stevia" has once again set sail, said Angus Flood, executive vice president, strategic development of Wisdom Natural Brands' SweetLeaf Sweetener. SweetLeaf was the first stevia company to acquire self-affirmed GRAS status in March 2008. That year, the FDA granted GRAS status for high purity (over 96 percent) Rebaudioside A for use as a sweetener ingredient in beverage and food products.
Stevia is making its way into salad dressings, flavored milks, spice and protein blends, granola, yogurt, breads, beverages and breakfast cereals. According to the USDA, the U.S. sweetener market is the largest and most diverse in the world – and Americans are also the largest consumer of sweeteners, including high fructose corn syrup.
But it's not as simple as switching stevia for sugar. As food formulators know, sugar doesn't provide just sweetness. When you remove sugar, or sucrose, from the equation, suddenly products lose the other properties sugar provides: bulking, preservation, texture or mouthfeel, and even changes in the food's appearance. Not to mention, stevia has a bitter aftertaste (if it hasn't been extracted to remove the bitter notes) that needs to be masked. “Sugar-free” isn’t that easy to achieve, nor do many food processing companies want to eliminate it entirely – even if they’re being pressured by government health programs.
Stevia teams up with sugar
This may be why stevia extract companies such as PureCircle are forming joint ventures with global sugar companies to create stevia-sucrose blends. Nordzucker, a large European sugar player, and PureCircle recently announced the creation of NP Sweet to market and sell stevia-sucrose blends for reduced-calorie applications. Last year, PureCircle also formed a joint venture with Tereos, another global sugar company based in Europe, to develop high purity stevia and sugar extracts. NP Sweet will operate in Northern and Eastern Europe, while Tereos PureCircle Solutions operates in France and Southern Europe.
“Globally, we are seeing the most significant trend to be calorie and sugar moderation rather than complete sugar replacement,” said Jason Hecker, director of marketing for PureCircle. Stevia-sucrose blends can be used as a natural sweetener in all food and beverage products in which sugar or other sweeteners are found, he explained.
Stevia-sucrose blends aren't driven only by taste and mouthfeel issues, however. “Diabetes and obesity are issues globally that are driving food and beverage manufacturers to reassess their portfolios and offer lower calorie options,” said Hecker. “However, it is clear that these solutions no longer fall solely into the full calorie/sugar and zero calorie/sugar camps.”
High-purity extracts or whole leaf?
While manufacturers and suppliers are pretty unanimous in believing that any stevia extract is better than any synthetic sweetener, the industry is confused, said Flood. “Reb-A is a good glycoside, but there are also a lot of glycosides in the stevia plant that are very healthful,” he said. While SweetLeaf uses the whole stevia leaf, other companies such as Cargill focus on the high-purity extracts. This type of disparity happens in other industries – for example, up until three years ago the omega-3 industry faced many of the same challenges.
But the World Stevia Organization and the International Stevia Council (ISC) are working to provide structure for stevia manufacturers to come to consensus, and to communicate stevia’s health benefits – extract or not – to the consumer.
Bringing standards to stevia
On May 4, the International Stevia Council (ISC) announced the launch of an independent Proficiency Testing Program (PTP) for stevia products. The PTP addresses current challenges of ensuring that analytical methods and standards employed by the players in the stevia industry are appropriate and also meet minimum levels of accuracy.
"At the moment, there are a wide variety of analytical methods and reference standards being used within the industry to determine steviol glycoside content," said Maria Teresa Scardigli, executive director of the International Stevia Council based in Brussels, Belgium. "The Proficiency Testing Program will allow participants to benchmark performance of their methods, analytical standards and analysts' competency in a statistically relevant, blind testing scheme managed in accordance with international quality standards."
So far, 15 laboratories are participating in the first round of the program this month. These labs include members of the International Stevia Council – PureCircle, Cargill and Corn Products International among them – as well as other companies and a governmental agency, said Scardigli. She said laboratories are "extremely interested" in participating and expects more companies to enroll in the second testing round in August.
This program and council may become the GOED of the stevia business. What the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3 did for the fish oils industry – educating the consumer while setting high standards for the business sector– is exactly what the stevia market needs to grow and mature. And itmay be one path through which a supplier and manufacturer can distinguish its products to provide quality assurance to consumers. Ultimately, "the aimis to bring consistency and ensure high quality of stevia-based products for the customers and end-consumers," said Scardigli.