The FDA's long-overdue approval of Reb-A from stevia as a sweetener is likely the hottest ingredient story of 2009, but the implications go beyond profits for the companies such as Pure-Circle that are in the forefront of providing Reb-A.
That stevia is 300 times sweeter than sugar is a significant fact for the environment in itself. "It means that stevia has a much lower land impact than other sweeteners," said Jason Hecker, PureCircle's director of marketing for North and South America. "One hectare of land can produce 100kg of Reb-A, which is equivalent to 20 metric tonnes of sugar. This frees up a lot of land for food and energy production."
The suddenly booming industry has been developing for 40 years, Hecker said, with the support of small family-owned farms that produce corn, rice and other food crops. Presently, PureCircle gets most of its stevia in China, but it has set up growing operations in Thailand, Paraguay and Ken-ya, as well. "We work with small farmers throughout the world, providing agronomists to educate them about sustainable farming techniques," Hecker said. "We now have leaf being grown for us in seven countries across three continents."
In addition, Pure-Circle is investing heavily in water treatment processes. "The extraction of stevia begins with water," Hecker said, "and we are treating the water to meet or exceed the standards in the areas where we are working. Most of the water used is actually recycled back into the operations."
Finally, the China operation is about to go online with a reclamation project in which the leftover biomass after extraction of the stevia leaf's 11 glycosides is used to create a projected equivalent of 1,200 kilowatt hours of energy. Hecker said he expects that this will be the prototype for the other emerging operations.
"In general," he said of PureCircle's philosophy on sustainability and social responsibility, "all our operating principles are meant to be aligned with the nature of our product — it comes directly from nature, from the leaf, it is all natural."