Europe is expected to approve stevia as early as November, bringing to an end years of lobbying to allow the all-natural, zero-calorie sweetener to be used in food and beverage products across the continent.
Unsurprisingly, there is a heightened sense of anticipation in the industry as companies await the European Commission’s official green light to bring stevia-sweetened products to store shelves in the EU. The first of these are expected on the market as early as January, as manufacturers and retailers race to capitalize on consumers’ annual post-holiday health kick.
“We have very high expectations for Europe—it’s a very big sweetener market,” said Jason Hecker, vice president of global marketing & innovation at stevia supplier PureCircle. “People have been anticipating European approval for some time and are ready to go.”
Angus Flood, president of the World Stevia Organization, is also confident that stevia sweeteners will prove a hit in Europe. But he warned it may take time for the leaf to truly make its mark there. “It’s important not to over-hype it, because things that are over-hyped can be disappointing in the short term, if people have unrealistic expectations that suddenly, everywhere they look, it’s going to be in every product. The food business doesn’t work like that.”
Flood predicts that stevia will first have to earn its spurs in the tabletop sweetener market before it gains widespread adoption in the food and beverage processing environment. “If you look at the history of new sweeteners, the first thing that must happen is that the tabletop version works commercially, because that always acts as a reliable indicator of consumer and acceptanceand uptake of the industrial product.”
In America, he said, stevia has gone on to take 23 percent of the tabletop market in the three years since it obtained GRAS approval. This has encouraged companies in the United States to accelerate research into food and beverage applications for stevia. “It’s taken time,” he added.
Will the same happen in Europe? Flood expects companies to follow a similar strategy, but he advises against scrutinizing the US too closely for clues as to how stevia will fare in the EU. “It’s a much less integrated market,” he said. “Although you do increasingly have multinationals with products across Europe, you also have a lot of local companies. So you have issues of language, culture and individual taste preferences. Some countries care much more about natural platforms than others. ”
Indeed, it might be more informative for companies to look much closer to EU shores for lessons in the do’s and don’ts of marketing stevia in Europe. France approved the use of Rebaudioside A in September 2009 (though not other forms of stevia sweeteners).
According to Mintel’s Global New Product Database, there were 15 launches of products containing stevia in France in 2010 and 12 in 2011 so far—indicating a steady stream, if not a deluge, of companies that have been willing to take advantage of the early approval bestowed by the French authorities.
However, Joël Perret, CEO of Auvergne-based Stevia Natura, said the market in France has been held back by the fact that companies have only been able to use the relatively expensive 97 percent purity Rebaudioside A form of stevia. The EU’s approval will be broader, allowing the use of a range of steviol glycosides which will offer greater flexibility and cost effectiveness.
Perret said, “The French market started very fast, after the authorization in September 2009, and then it stopped mid-2010 due to the fact that people were awaiting the European authorization. The information was that this authorization would be broader than only for Reb A, so companies said, ‘why develop new products using a very specific molecule when we will be able to develop the same products with a larger variety of stevia extracts?’ ”
But, encouragingly, consumer awareness of stevia in France has risen sharply since it was approved there, and now stands at almost 50 percent, according to PureCircle. Hecker said, “It’s grown very rapidly over the past year following product launches and PR. The environment to talk about stevia, given all the discussion around obesity and diabetes, is just so great.”
Flood said that if this figure was to be replicated across the EU, the industry would be very happy.“Consumer awareness at the moment is probably still fairly low. But if you can get to 50 percent after two years, then you’re doing extremely well. France conforms to that, so there’s no reason to expect that we wouldn’t see the same sort of trend in markets such as the UK and Germany.”