By most measures, stevia has become a gradual smash hit, a nearly perfect storm convergence of features when it comes to sweeteners. It is sweet, very sweet; up to 300 times sweeter than sugar. It's low in calories; in fact, its calories are negligible, along with its effect on insulin secretion. And it's natural. The sweet leaves of the stevia plant (a member of the sunflower family) have been used as a sweetener for decades in many countries before stevia extracts entered the U.S. sweetener market.
The sweet and low- or no-cal attributes have been givens probably forever in the non-nutritive sweetener game. Taste was a trade-off most dieters have been willing to make. But truly natural was never an option until stevia. And it has been a huge part of that sweetener's success.
Playing that same card is the next big sweetener to hit the market. A fruit of the herbaceous perennial vine Siraitia grosvenorii, native to southern China and northern Thailand, is called by several names, including luo han guo, Buddha fruit or, more recently, monk fruit.
Known in traditional Chinese medicine as a sweetener for cooling drinks and used to treat obesity and diabetes, monk fruit contains fructose and glucose as natural sugars. But it's the mogrosides, compounds similar to those that sweeten stevia, that make the monk fruit up to 300 times as sweet as sugar.
BioVittoria Ltd. was an early advocate of the sweetener. The New Zealand-based company claims to have locked up 90 percent of the world's supply of monk fruit.
It's vertically integrated, supplying its own seedlings to Chinese farmers who are contracted to supply the company. The seedlings are the optimized result of natural plant breeding, not genetic modification, emphasizes Paul Paslaski, vice president of sales and marketing in the U.S. office in Libertyville, Ill. BIoVittoria then processes the monk fruit extract into a powder, which is then sent through distributors around the world. It buys no monk fruit on the open market, he says.
Actually, it's not an extract, Paslaski claims. "Since it comes from a fruit, it basically starts as a juice," he explains. Only water is used in the extraction/processing. The mogrosides are separated from the fresh-pressed juice of the monk fruit that contains carbohydrate sources, fructose and glucose. And that could be a key advantage over stevia. A true "natural" claim for some stevia could be questioned, as some suppliers of that plant-based sweetener use solvents to extract the steviol glycosides.
Paslaski also notes that while most of the current interest in monk fruit is due to its sweetening ability, there are several other bioactives in the fruit that could become valuable and marketed ingredients down the road.
BioVittoria's first milestone was the January 2010 notification from the FDA that its Fruit-Sweetness-branded monk fruit concentrate is GRAS (generally recognized as safe). Then came a partnership with London-based Tate & Lyle PLC, with U.S. headquarters in Hoffman Estates, Ill., which resulted in Tate & Lyle buying an equity stake in the company and becoming the exclusive distributor worldwide.
Tate & Lyle launched industrial products under the name Purefruit and just recently supplied BioVittoria's monk fruit to McNeil Nutritionals LLC, a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary, for Nectresse, a consumer/tabletop sweetener that is just rolling out nationally. It's advertised as a combination of monk fruit extract and other natural sweeteners including erythritol, a sugar alcohol that is fermented from sugars present in many vegetables and fruits.
That Tate & Lyle-McNeil deal parallels the partnership the two companies have for Splenda, McNeil's consumer brand for the London company's sucralose.
Blue California, Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., also sees great potential, and earlier this year debuted its BlueSweet monk fruit extract. "It's a really good product but has a different profile than stevia," explains Cecilia McCollum, executive vice president.
She notes that interest is keeping the price high, so Blue California is experimenting with fermentation production of the mogroside, instead of extraction, which the company successfully did with stevia. "That would increase the yield, lower the price, ensure availability and control the purity of each batch," she adds.
At a November ingredient show, U.S. Niutang Chemical Inc., Chino, Calif., provided samples of a monk fruit sweetener. Tentatively called Fruit20 and Fruit50, denoting the percentages of the mogroside, Niutang has aligned itself with a highly regarded Chinese manufacturer. Niutang is just getting started marketing the new sweetener. It has a large portfolio of non-nutritive sweeteners, including sucralose, aspartame, acesulfame potassium, stevia and erythritol.
"Monk fruit has a different taste than sugar, as does stevia," says Nancy Hughes, vice president of of sales and marketing. But she notes it has less of an aftertaste than even the purest forms of stevia. "Monk fruit is very new to this market. It's being welcomed by companies who make natural food products. But it will take time for more product developers to fine-tune it and consumers to accept it," she says.
Just like stevia.