As a result, Blue California was one of the first companies to claim GRAS status for a stevia sweetener, Good&Sweet, in 2009. Theirs is perhaps the highest-purity rebaudioside-A – the most desirable isolate of the stevia plant — on the market, at 99 percent.
While stevia as a solo act did not take off as some vendors hoped, it's coming along quite nicely as a co-star with sugar and other natural sweeteners.
"Blending all-natural stevia extracts with other forms of sugar, such as fructose or sucrose, helps to create excellent-tasting products," says James Kempland, vice president of marketing for SGF LLC (www.sweetgreenfields.com), Bellingham, Wash. "Food and beverage manufacturers who target this mid-calorie — or what SGF refers to as the ‘right calorie' segment — have been successful."
Kempland said he believes mid-calorie products are "the future of beverages." But so is the "natural" claim that stevia can make.
"Globally, according to Mintel data, the highest growth rate and potential for stevia is blending with sugar for low-calorie beverages," he continues. "This makes sense, as most beverage drinkers fall into either of two camps: full-calorie or zero-calorie. Full-calorie drinkers are concerned with calories, but don't like ‘diet' products or don't want to consume artificial sweeteners. By blending stevia and sugar or high-fructose corn syrup, consumers get an all-natural, great tasting and ‘good-for-you' product" that also has fewer calories."
An example of a successful mid-calorie formulation is Tropicana's Trop 50, a blended orange juice product with less than half the calories of regular orange juice.
Kempland notes SGF's technical formulations team has created tasty 50 percent-reduced calorie prototype products for customers.
Another consideration when sweetening drinks is cost. "As formulators, we also have to consider the rising market prices for traditional, nutritive sweeteners, high-intensity sweeteners and other ingredients while working to create reduced-sugar products," says Wade Schmeltzer, another Cargill principal food scientist.
Cargill's Truvia stevia RA80, which contains 80 percent rebaudioside-A, is designed for reducing sugar in beverage applications such as juice drinks, sweetened teas, carbonated beverages, dairy-based beverages and alcoholic drinks. "Up to 30 percent sugar reduction can be achieved, depending on the beverage, while maintaining great taste and flavor relative to traditional full-sugar beverages," he says.
Enliten is a stevia sweetener from Corn Products International (www.cornproducts.com), Westchester, Ill. It's extracted from stevia rebaudiana Bertoni plant leaves without undergoing any chemical modification. Corn Products (which currently is undergoing a name change to Ingredion) notes that Enliten "enhances the sweetness and intensity of other sweeteners, including sucrose, erythritol, high-fructose corn syrup and crystalline fructose."
"The movement to steer away from high-fructose corn syrup is becoming more apparent with other soft drink companies," says Andrew Baumann, brand manager for Jones Soda Co. (www.jonessoda.com), Seattle. "We already have seen a trend toward this after we raised the standard to use only pure cane sugar in our beverages."
And now Jones is working on stevia. "We've all learned about its inherent limitations in use, but through our work with our flavor developers and the major stevia suppliers, we've adopted ways of working with the ingredient to overcome some of the challenges it can pose."
As a no-sugar, zero-calorie option, Jones created its Zilch line of sodas, which uses sucralose for sweetness. A more recent launch is Au Naturel, "a more ‘grown-up' beverage option," Baumann says, sweetened with stevia and a blend of sweeteners. Au Naturel is a flavored sparkling beverage with 35 calories, 7g of sugar and 5g of fiber per serving.
"Our Au Naturel line will be the beverage alternative for devoted Jones fans who may have outgrown our traditional pure cane sodas and are looking for a lower-calorie, less sweet sparkling beverage option," he says. Another trend with respect to color in beverages is none, and Au Naturel conforms by being virtually clear. The product is available in three flavors (and colors), Green Apple, Lemon Limelight and Orange Ya Glad It's Mango.
Luo han what?
As stevia finds its legs, a sweetener with a very similar history is just starting to make inroads. Luo han guo, or monk fruit, has been around since at least the 13th century and is native to China (whereas stevia was brought to that country from Paraguay). Like stevia, it adds zero calories and is considered natural.