Have Food Processors Found the Holy Grail of Sweeteners?

Will stevia live up to its promise to consumers?

By Diane Toops, News & Trends Editor

The latest biennial data from the Centers for Disease Control, published in the January Journal of the American Medical Association, found the obesity rate in the U.S. appears to have steadied for the past five years. Still, more than two-thirds of adults, almost a third of children and some 10 percent of babies and toddlers are obese or overweight, a major risk for diabetes and heart disease.

President Barack Obama pushed hard to make obesity prevention part of health care reform. Measures pending in Congress include encouraging employer-based wellness programs, requirements that large restaurant chains list calories and taxes on sodas and “junk foods.”

Whether the criticism is fair or not, sugar and corn sweeteners, particularly high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), are taking heat from health “advocates” as contributors to the obesity crisis. HFCS continues to dominate the overall sweetener market, accounting for over 95 percent of demand in volume terms and more than 85 percent of dollar demand, according to Bharat Book Bureau, Mumbi, India. But criticism of HFCS mounts. In fact, First Lady Michelle Obama said she wouldn’t give her children products made with it.

Not deaf to consumer backlash, the food industry is on a mission to provide lower-calorie beverages and foods, mostly by replacing sugar and HFCS with zero- and low-calorie sweeteners, and to encourage exercise and smaller serving options.

A very big, five-year milestone comes up this year. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans is expected to set a limit on added sugars. “Added sugars are a significant source of empty calories and may be associated with greater overall calorie intake, higher body weights and lower intakes of essential nutrients,” according to the American Heart Assn. “Excess sugar consumption has also been linked to several metabolic abnormalities and adverse health conditions. No more than one-half of discretionary calories should come from added sugars.”

The limit for most women would be no more than 100 calories of added sugar per day (or 6 teaspoons) and no more than 150 calories for men (or 9 teaspoons), far below the 22 teaspoons or 355 calories of added sugar consumed by the average American each day, according to a 2004 government survey. Soft drinks were singled out as the top source of "discretionary" sugar calories.

U.S. demand for alternative sweeteners in the past decade increased about 4 percent per year to $1.1 billion in 2009, according to The Freedonia Group, a Cleveland-based research firm. As food processors and consumers seek healthier food options with fewer calories or less high-fructose corn syrup, U.S. demand for alternative sweeteners is projected to grow 3.4 percent annually through 2013, Freedonia projects. Sucralose (in tabletop), acesulfame potassium (ace-K) in diet soft drinks, erythritol (in sugarless candy and gum) and stevia extract rebiana/rebaudioside-A will see above-average gains.

Reb-A bursts on the scene

After years of relative stability in the product mix of sweeteners, several new options are available. But far and away, the most promising are extracts of the stevia plant, primarily steviol glycoside rebaudioside A (reb-A).

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.

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.”