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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Timing couldn’t be better

In 2008, “all natural” was the most prevalent claim for new products launched, according to ACNielsen. Retail U.S. sales that year of all-natural products were valued at more than $22 billion, a 10 percent increase from 2007 and up a notable 37 percent since 2004. Sugar and HFCS were already under the consumer gun, and global food companies were ready to go stevia.

“Because stevia-based sweeteners are plant-derived and naturally occurring, they can be incorporated into products with all-natural claims,” said Stephen Rannekleiv, analyst for St. Louis-based investment firm Rabobank Group. “To date, no other commercially available high intensity sweetener can fill this gap.”

Reb-A is heat-, light- and pH-stable and can be used in applications where other sweeteners cannot. But it is reb-A’s all-natural claim that makes it the holy grail among sweeteners. “Consumer concerns regarding obesity and the growing demand for all-natural products bode well for reb-A to quickly gain market share,” said Rannekleiv. “While success seems imminent, and we expect annual U.S. sales to reach approximately $700 million within five years (up 50 percent), numerous hurdles must still be overcome.”

Price and demand could become problematic once the EU approves reb-A for use as a food ingredient. Approval is expected at the end of 2010 or early 2011.

More important are taste challenges. Reb-A has a taste similar to sugar, but some consumers claim they detect a bitter or licorice aftertaste. Additionally, reb-A alone does not provide enough sweetness for some soft drinks, and it cannot be combined with other non-caloric sweeteners to reach full sweetness and still make the all-natural claim.

“Most beverage companies appear to be developing formulas that combine reb-A with sugar, which helps to mask any residual aftertaste and allows for a low-calorie, non-caloric option,” said Rannekleiv.

Masking the aftertaste of reb-A without detracting from its natural status has become a significant business line for some. Many flavor companies have found ways to mask it without detracting from its natural status, including Comax, Firmenich, Givaudan, Purac, Sensient, Symrise, Virginia Dare, Wild and Wixon.

Not everyone agrees that stevia needs a masking agent. “The fact is not all stevia products are the same; the aftertaste is associated with steviosides, the most prevalent component of the stevia leaf,” says Cecilia McCollum, executive vice president of Blue California, Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif. The company markets two purity levels of its Good&Sweet reb-A: 97% pure and 99%. McCollum claims the latter is the highest purity reb-A with GRAS status.

“Purified reb-A offers the benefit of better taste, and the highest purity reb-A has a very clean taste, no metallic aftertaste at all and requires very little or no masking, depending on the formulation,” she says.

She also points out steviol glycosides (reb-A is one of the them) were found to be safe for general use as a food ingredient by the Joint FAO/WHO expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) in June 2008 after 10 years of review of the clinical data and published studies.

McCollum adds that stevia can be used in many product categories.

“Our customers are working on the development of several food products, cereals, deserts, confectionery, functional drinks, baked goods (including cookies), toothpaste and other personal care products,” she explains. “There is great potential for the right products, products that promise a natural sweetener, low calories and good taste. A bitter aftertaste will prevent the success of a new product, so choosing the right ingredient is of the utmost importance. Great taste makes a difference.”

PureCircle USA Inc., Oak Brook, Ill., commissioned an agency specializing in moms and kids to ask 1,475 mothers their perception of sweeteners and product development opportunities. The study found moms are concerned about the amount of sugar in their children’s diets, are wary of artificial sweeteners but are interested in stevia because it is “natural.” They would like more food and beverage options using stevia.

“Through our moms research, we found that some of the highest interest categories for stevia include tabletop sweeteners, beverages like punch and carbonated soft drinks (CSDs), as well as baked goods,” says Jason Hecker, PureCircle’s director of marketing. “Perceived healthier products like yogurt, flavored water, and refrigerated juices were near the top as well.”

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