If anybody ever takes it upon themselves to write a history of stevia-based sweeteners, there will surely be a chapter devoted to France's Greensweet.
Commercially, the company is of little note. Last year, its sales amounted to just 300,000 euros — about US$440,000. But in stevia's protracted journey towards global regulatory approval, this Auvergne-based business has become a central protagonist.
Last month, Greensweet succeeded — after years of jumping through scientific hoops — in persuading the French government to approve Rebaudioside A 97, a high purity extract of stevia, as safe for sale on the domestic food and beverage market.
AFSSA, France's food industry regulator, employed a little-used — and soon-to-be abolished — legal instrument that makes it possible for a European Union member state to give an ingredient a two-year temporary approval even if it is not permitted for sale on the wider EU market.
It was as far back as mid-2006 that Greensweet had lodged an application to sell stevia in France, and it is a testament to the company's persistence that its quest was ultimately fruitful. "For three years I had to fight with the experts at the French food safety agency to demonstrate these products have no effect on human health," recalls Joel Perret, who founded Greensweet four years ago. "Each time I replied to their questions I would get another set of questions."
For Perret, the success is not total. For one thing, AFSSA approved only the expensive Reb A 97 and not the cheaper forms of stevia Greensweet had sought permission to sell.
For another, in the time it has taken to win the approval, the global market for stevia has been transformed. In December 2008, the US Food & Drug Administration approved high purity Reb A, and has gone on to give the nod to other forms of the sweetener. Shortly afterwards, the plant was given the green light for sale in Australia and New Zealand.
What this means for Perret is that his business plan, hatched as far back as 2004 when the WHO/FAO Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives recommended stevia as safe, has now been overtaken by events.
Perret had hoped Greensweet would be the first on to the market in France with stevia. But instead it faces keen competition from much, much larger organisations, including Cargill and GLG Life Tech. "The authorisation came quite late on which means the gate is completely open for the big companies," he says, ruefully.
Unsurprisingly, the French approval, although limited to the market where it was conferred, has indeed piqued the interest of these ingredients giants. "Cargill is well positioned to meet the demand in France we expect to see with this approval," said Zanna McFerson, assistant vice president at Cargill Health and Nutrition, which markets Reb A under the Truvia brand, when the news was announced.
GLG chairman and CEO Luke Zhang, meanwhile, told the media: "We have already been working with customers in R&D and product formulation in preparation of this approval. As a leading supplier of the world's purest stevia extracts, we are prepared to meet the demands of the European market and are pleased with the decision of the French ministry to permit its use in food and beverages."
Perret concedes that marketing Greensweet's Reb A to beverage giants such as Coca Cola and Pepsi will not be possible. But he believes opportunities in France will be plentiful nonetheless. The company already has a modest, but sound, established customer base in European countries that are not in the European Union, such as Russia and Georgia, and in north Africa. And he is certain Greensweet will add French companies to their number, underlined by the sudden surge in enquiries received by Greensweet in the days following the approval.
"There are a lot of smaller players that we are able to deal with, particularly in the drinks industry," he says. Greensweet also has hopes of carving out a niche as a supplier of organic Reb A, he adds, something he claims the larger players are not interested in. "It's a commodity product," he says.
Perret predicts the AFSSA approval will help Greensweet's sales rise by a third to 400,000 euros this year — but next year he expects the company to go into overdrive and forecasts revenues of 5 million euros. Thereafter, progress is limited only by capacity, he says. "Our main problem is to find investors in order to expand."
Perret also believes EU approval for stevia is just around the corner. "The situation is evolving very fast," he says. "My feeling is that most EU countries are preparing for the final evolution, which will be to allow the sale all steviol glycosides in the EU. There is a sense of history."