Stevia is the wild card sweetener

As the sweetener industry seeks natural sweeteners with lower caloric value and glycemic index than sugar, and perceived "safer" artificial sweeteners, stevia products are poised to make a splash, according to "Trends in the U.S. Market for Sugar, Sugar Substitutes and sweeteners," a report by Packaged Facts, which projects the market will grow to $3.2 billion by 2012.

The composition of the market may shift with the introduction of stevia extracts, continued growth of the organic and less-refined sugar categories, and the decline of saccharin.

Stevia is the wild card. Made from the Stevia or sweetleaf plant, it is a natural but non-nutritive high-intensity sweetener with up to 300 times the sweetness of sugar, making it extremely desirable in the low-calorie food and beverage market. Stevia and its derivatives are being used in foods and beverages in many countries but currently only approved for sale as dietary supplements in the U.S.

However, there are industry expectations for GRAS approval in the U.S. for a pure form of stevia for use in food and beverages, which could go a long way to combat the obesity problem. Applications are in place for patent protections for a derivative developed jointly by Coca-Cola and Cargill, under the brand name Truvia, as well as one developed by PepsiCo and Merisant Co., under the PureVia brand name. GRAS approval is expected momentarily.

Reuters reported this morning that PepsiCo. is poised to launch three flavors of zero-calorie SOBE LifeWater drinks when U.S. regulators approve the plant-based sugar substitute for use in bottled drinks. The company already sells a successful stevia-sweetened drink in Peru made under the PureVia brand.