Stevia as a sweetener: A natural history

Scott Rayburn
Beverage Applications Manager
Cargill Flavor Systems

Beverage development has progressed steadily since the 1830s, when carbonated, flavored sodas debuted at apothecary seltzer fountains. Previously, beverage choices had been limited to water, milk, beer, wine and spirits. With these fountains came a wide variety of flavors and textures from carbonation which previously had not been available.  The genie of flavor and taste was out of the bottle, and consumers craved more.   

According to the National Soft Drink Association, per-person consumption in the United States is now more than 600 12-ounce servings a year.

In the 1980s, the discovery of high-intensity sweeteners allowed for the creation of diet soda. Diet soda became a huge growth market in the United States and, ultimately, the world. But the romance was bittersweet. The genie became Pandora as diet soda came under scrutiny for containing artificial sweeteners, which some suspected were harmful.

It was time for natural zero-calorie sweeteners like stevia, a plant discovered in Paraguay more than 100 years ago. The original stevia sweeteners were usually ground extracts of multiple components of the stevia leaf and all their inherent sugary and bitter metallic attributes. These early extracts were appealing to consumers in the organic and natural market settings, and they had been marketed as supplements at health-food stores for decades. However, widescale marketing of these products was difficult due to their unpleasant taste.
Fortunately, the last 15 years of technological advancement have brought us to a new era in product development. Cargill has purified the stevia plant to a compound we know as Rebaudioside

A (Reb-A), or Rebiana, the best-tasting component of the stevia plant. It has a mostly sweet taste and much fewer off-notes than previous offerings.

Clean-label opportunities abound for manufacturers who do not want an artificial sweetener on their ingredient panel. Like me, beverage developers have seized this opportunity to ply their skills and create all-natural zero- and mid-calorie beverages.

Rebiana is dramatically better than earlier stevia-based natural sweeteners, but it can't achieve the sweetness of sugar. Some off-notes linger for consumers who are genetically sensitive to bitter tastes.  
Modern developers use thickening agents to replace mouthfeel, flavors to enhance sweetness and mask bitterness, and other non-nutritive sweeteners to increase the perception of sugar.

The future will bring more naturally sweetened low-calorie products to the market as new ingredient synergies emerge and flavor development progresses for consumers wanting fewer artificial chemicals in the products they drink and eat. Now that's sweet.

Scott Rayburn is the beverage applications manager at Cargill Flavor Systems. He has more than 20 years of experience in food and beverage research and development. Before joining Cargill, he was a flavor chemist and product developer at Clarendon Flavor Engineering, Diageo, Stearns & Lehman Coffee Syrups, and Sensient Flavors.