As consumers look for ways to reduce their sugar intake, stevia has been propelled into the limelight – allowing food and beverage manufacturers to increase the scope for sugar reduction in products.
The number of beverage launches using stevia has risen in recent years: but key to long term success will be ensuring widespread acceptance of stevia’s natural credentials.
Top priorities for health conscious consumers: natural and low calorie
There has been a steady increase in the number of global food and beverages launches using stevia: rising from just 280 in 2009 to 2,400 in 2015, according to the International Stevia Council.
Geographically, Europe has led the way followed by the US. In Germany between July 2014 and June 2016, 16% of hot drinks launched in Germany contained stevia, while in juice figures this figure was 14%, in confectionery 14%, and 11% in chocolate products.
Beverages have taken a lead in using stevia: with carbonated soft drinks accounting for 8% of launches using stevia, hot beverages accounting for 4%, juice drinks 11%, RTDs 10%, and other beverages 14% (Statista, 2015).
Stevia based sweeteners use purified extracts - steviol glycosides - from the leaves of the stevia plant.
The key is that these calorie-free extracts – some 200 times sweeter than sugar - can be used as a natural sweetener, helping tick the boxes for a number of today’s health conscious consumers. (However, the extracts still typically require blending with other sweeteners or sugar to ensure the taste of products is not affected).
Having been used as a sweetener for many years in Asia and South America, steviol glycosides were approved by the EU in 2010 and are accepted as GRAS (Generally Recognised As Safe) by the FDA in the US.
“Stevia has gathered momentum, it’s gaining approvals and being used in an ever increasing range of products,” observes Richard Hall, chairman, Zenith Global. “It’s becoming the first preference in sweetener exploration.
“What consumers are looking for is the perfect combination of being all natural, no calories, and an equal taste. Stevia certainly goes a very long way, the key questions are whether it will be able to maintain or develop its taste profile and natural perception.”
This natural perception is challenged as stevia requires processing from its pure form to be used in food and beverages. Producers are looking to new production techniques to reduce cultivation costs and increase volumes – but consumers may question how ‘natural’ that leaves the sweetener.
Coca-Cola Life: sweetened with cane sugar and stevia leaf extract, with 60 calories per 8 oz bottle in the US (35% fewer calories than standard colas).
Pepsi True: sweetened with sugar and purified stevia leaf extract, containing 30% less sugar than regular Pepsi.
Liteez: Lampados International’s 3D stevia sweetener for hot drinks: a ‘meringue kiss’ that can be stirred into tea or coffee as a sugar replacement or eaten as a sweet treat in itself.
And ultimately it is consumers’ perception of stevia that will determine how well it is accepted, says Hall.
“If people make the connection with nature, they will be happy to buy as natural,” said Hall. “It’s a question of presentation and acceptance.”
Producers are working hard to clearly position stevia as natural and convey this message - for example, by connecting the sweetener clearly to the stevia plant and plantations.
Alternatives to stevia
Stevia is a frontrunner in sweetener innovation: but there are other developments in the sweetener market – while sugar remains an option because it is clearly recognized by consumers as ‘natural’.
“Stevia does seem to be the leading contender, but there are others from monkfruit and DouxMatok [which is developing sugars with enhanced sweetness] and Nestle’s sugar reduction efforts in confectionery [the company has filed a patent for structuring sugar differently to reduce sugar content by up to 40%], and we can’t rule out sugar itself,” said Hall.
“Sugar has the attributes of being perceived as very natural and having the best taste profile, but of course it contains calories.”
The number of cultivation regions for stevia is growing, presenting manufacturers with a greater range of products and availability. Africa is becoming increasingly important, while new cultivation regions are emerging in South America, Asia Pacific and Europe. The market’s reliance on extracts originating from China is diminishing while India is increasing its share.
Zenith's Global Stevia Market Report 2016 predicts the price of stevia will decline in the future as a result of the abundance of farmers who are harvesting stevia leaves, taking advantage of the crop’s less demanding conditions relative to other crops.