From high-end eateries to local coffee shops, green packets of stevia are increasingly making an appearance alongside turbinado sugar and honey as a natural way to sweeten beverages without calories.
Customers have clearly embraced stevia. Since receiving approval as a commercial ingredient in 2008, Faith Son, vice president of marketing and innovation, PureCircle (Chicago), says stevia has enjoyed “tremendous growth.” In the last five years, Mintel data show that the number of products containing stevia has multiplied at rate of 48%, with nearly 3,000 new launches year-to-date, Son says, adding, “We’ve seen increases in stevia use across all regions globally. And stevia’s been incorporated into most applications where you’d traditionally find sugar.”
This growth is pretty amazing in and of itself, and is even more impressive when you recall stevia at its start.
Road to Success
Says Andy Ohmes, global director, high-intensity sweeteners, Cargill (Minneapolis), “It’s important to recognize how far we’ve come with stevia.” His company worked with the sweetener in the early days when, “despite its popularity, there were limitations,” particularly vis-à-vis comparisons of the sweetener to the sugar it aimed to replace. “But,” maintains Ohmes, “we knew advances were possible.”
Stevia is composed of several molecules; researchers have identified approximately 40 so far, and at least 10 of them are the steviol glycosides like Rebaudiosides A and D, Stevioside and Rubusoside responsible for stevia’s taste and flavor. “Each molecule reacts differently in formulations and has a different taste profile,” explained Maria Teresa Scardigli, executive director of the International Stevia Council (ISC, Brussels, Belgium) in a recent interview.1 And when formulators began using first-generation stevia sweeteners weighted toward Reb A and Stevioside, they had to contend with bitter and metallic off-notes—not to mention a lingering taste.
“Today, suppliers have addressed this problem by creating steviol glycoside blends that are less dependent on Reb A and Stevioside,” Scardigli said. “Suppliers now have a much better understanding of the different glycosides, how they work together, and their diverse sweetness profiles.”
This understanding has only emerged within the past several years, she notes, and it has made today’s stevia blends “completely different products” from what was available a decade ago. “Next-generation Steviol glycoside blends have been able to overcome several challenges faced by food and beverage manufacturers,” she stated. “Therefore, the taste is really more like sugar.”
State of the Stevia Art—and Science
That achievement owes itself partly to improvements in the quality of the stevia plant. As Scardigli stated, “You need a high-quality stevia leaf to produce a high-quality extract that tastes good.” So, sweetener producers have been working directly with growers “to use normal plant breeding techniques to ensure that the leaves have larger quantities of certain steviol glycosides,” she stated.
For PureCircle, Son says, “Everything comes back to using better varieties of stevia plants.” The company’s proprietary stevia variety (StarLeaf) has 20 times more sugar-like content than conventional leaf varieties, she says, allowing for more significant sugar reduction even with improved taste. “Combinations of different stevia molecules can also provide optimal taste performance compared to single-ingredient solutions,” she adds.
For Cargill’s part, Ohmes notes that after spending “more than 150,000 hours studying the stevia plant’s many steviol glycosides,” company scientists incorporated what they learned first into a branded ingredient (ViaTech)—which he says effectively increased the rate of successful sugar replacement from 30% to 70%—and then into a newer product (EverSweet) set to launch in 2018.
Is it Natural?
To create its new sweetener with a faster sweetness onset and no bitterness, Cargill homed in Reb D and Reb M, “which offer a heightened sweetness and taste similar to real sugar,” Ohmes says. Unfortunately, those two glycosides occur in the stevia leaf only in trace amounts of less than 1%. And because the land and water resources necessary to produce commercially viable quantities of Reb D and Reb M from stevia leaves were “staggering,” he continues, fermentation was used to produce its newer launch.
But as a product of fermentation and not an extract from the stevia leaf itself, will it qualify as “natural” with label-reading consumers? Proponents believe consumers will likely respond positively to a fermentative process that not only yields a more sugar-like sweetener, but also has a more sustainable pedigree than soem agriculturally produced stevia options.
As if that weren’t enough, Son notes that PureCircle’s scientists are peering beyond stevia’s utility as a sweetener to better understand how its other chemical constituents might benefit consumers and be leveraged as novel ingredients.
To wit, “Once PureCircle determined it could extract a meaningful amount of antioxidant content found in the stevia leaf”—primarily chlorogenic acid, the antioxidant associated with green coffee bean extract— “we knew our customers would find additional value and a functional benefit from this ingredient,” Son says.
Consumers’ desire for such benefits has driven an increase in launches trumpeting antioxidant claims of more than 18% over the past five years, per the Mintel GNPD, she says. And as the company continues “working through the regulatory approvals process,” it aims to bring its stevia antioxidant product to market sometime in 2018.
2017 Ingredient Trends to Watch for Food, Drinks, and Dietary Supplements:
1. Sugar Reduction & Replacement Strategies, a Nutritional Outlook ebook sponsored by Cargill, January 2018, http://www.nutritionaloutlook.com/e-learning-tools/cargill-health-ebook-...