Have Food Processors Found the Holy Grail of Sweeteners?

Will stevia live up to its promise to consumers?

By Diane Toops, News & Trends Editor

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Sugar, vilified for its caloric content and blamed for hyperactivity in children, is enjoying a redux in some quarters – those occupied by consumers focused on natural ingredients in their food. In 2003, consumption of sugar and HFCS evened out, according to the USDA, and recently the two have reversed in usage. Per capita, American adults consumed about 44 pounds of sugar in 2007, compared with about 40 pounds of HFCS.
Manufacturers are answering the call for those consumers. ConAgra uses only sugar or honey in its Healthy Choice All Natural frozen entrees. Kraft Foods removed corn sweeteners from its salad dressings. Log Cabin syrup, a 120-year-old brand in the Pinnacle Foods Group stopped using HFCS corn syrup. PepsiCo rolled out Pepsi Natural, Mountain Dew Throwback, and for Passover there are sugar versions of Pepsi, Caffeine Free Pepsi and Sierra Mist. Coca-Cola’s Passover products with sugar include Coke and Sprite. And many consumers prefer Coke made in Mexico with sugar, buy it in Hispanic bodegas and hoard it year round.

For hundreds of years, the stevia plant has been used as a sweetener in Paraguay, but in the U.S. it was approved only as a supplement in 1998. Seattle-based Zevia LLC claims to have launched the first all-natural, sugar-free carbonated soft drink in the U.S. in November 2007, with the stevia labeled as a dietary supplement, not a sweetener.

Reb-A was granted approval in Japan in the 1970s; by 1988 it comprised 41 percent of the sweetener market there. Stevia products also are approved for general food & beverage use in Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, Russia, Israel, South Korea, Taiwan, China, Russia, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Paraguay, Uruguay, Malaysia and other countries.

But the playing field for sweeteners changed in December 2008, when the FDA issued no objection letters to Cargill Inc. and Whole Earth Sweetener Co., a wholly owned subsidiary of Merisant, concluding that both firms’ reb-A is generally recognized as safe for use in beverages, foods, tabletop sweeteners and as a food additive.

Whole Earth was partnered with Pepsico, and the immediate result was PureVia as both an ingredient and tabletop sweetener. Tabletop PureVia is a zero calorie (2g carbs per serving) sweetener derived from stevia that also includes some erythritol (found in fruits), isomaltulose (found in honey and sugar cane juice) cellulose powder and natural flavors.

Cargill teamed with Coca-Cola for the debut of Truvia. Its tabletop version also includes erythritol and natural flavors. Truvia has become the leading zero-calorie natural tabletop sweetener in the U.S., with sales of $25.5 million, according to Cargill. It has 6.1 percent of the overall sugar substitute market, according to ACNielsen sales data.

Just this year, McNeil Nutritionals, a unit of Johnson & Johnson and the maker of Splenda, began selling a “natural” tabletop sweetener made from stevia and sugarcane called Sun Crystals. There are several other stevia-based tabletop sweeteners.

Battle of the soda giants

After FDA approval, the two soda giants went to work. Coca-Cola North America quickly launched Sprite Green and two Odwalla drinks sweetened with Truvia. Pepsico immediately unveiled three flavors of SoBe Lifewater made with PureVia, and shortly thereafter a reduced-calorie Tropicana orange juice, Trop50.

Coca-Cola, which had been using stevia in its products in Japan, China and Brazil since the 1970s, reportedly had been interested (and involved) in developing its own sweetener for the U.S. market for at least 10 years. Cargill also saw the potential, and commissioned a multi-year program of safety studies for reb-A beginning in 2005 to answer questions that lingered in the scientific community about the safety of stevia.

By 2007, 24 patent applications for the ingredient were filed by Coca-Cola. In May 2008, the studies were published in Food & Chemical Toxicology and reviewed by the scientific community as a prelude to the FDA’s acceptance at the end of 2008.

“Cargill has leveraged its deep expertise in agronomy and food ingredient formulation in addition to more than 145 years of quality assurance and food safety to bring Truvia rebiana to its food and beverage customers,” says Ann Tucker, Truvia’s director, marketing & communications.  Chinese ingredients company GLG Life Tech supplies most of the extract to Cargill, and it has a 10-year agreement, renewable to at least 2030.

“Truvia rebiana is in a host of new beverage products including Vitaminwater10, Hansen's Natural Lo-Cal Juices and Blue Bunny Ice Cream products,” confirms Tucker. Additional partners include Grand Brand Inc.’s True Lemon, Kraft Foods’ Nature’s Splash and Breyers Yogurt Co.’s YoCrunch 100 -- marking one of the first uses of stevia in something other than a beverage. “More than 100 food and beverage companies are actively partnering with Cargill to develop new products with Truvia rebiana with multiple launch timelines in 2010,” adds Tucker.

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