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Jennifer Grebow is editor-in-chief of Nutritional Outlook.
Has Reb A been eclipsed by newer stevia superstars? Stevia suppliers talked about this and other stevia trends at IFT 2016.
Stevia suppliers put forth their most innovative food and drink samples to date at July’s Institute of Food Technologists Annual Meeting & Food Expo. From colas to iced coffees, these prototypes showed just how far suppliers have come in finding stevia solutions that not only achieve the deep calorie cuts regulators and consumers want to see, but that do so with a pleasing taste and mouthfeel consumers will accept hands down.
With all of the attention now on “newer” steviol glycosides like Reb M and Reb D, however, I wondered whether mainstays like Reb A are losing any market share to these up-and-coming superstars. I spoke to stevia representatives about this and other stevia topics at the show.
Still a Place for Reb A?
Stevia suppliers are definitely focusing on innovating with newer glycosides like Reb M and Reb D, which are said to be more sugarlike than Reb A, with a more rounded sweetness. These new-generation steviol glycosides may sidestep more of the bitter aftertaste typically associated with Reb A, which itself may require flavor maskers and other technologies to avoid. As a result, “now we’re seeing a lot more demand for other glycosides outside of Reb A,” said John Martin, global director of innovation, PureCircle (Chicago).
In fact the emerging role for Reb A may be in combination with glycosides like Reb M, Reb D, and others, as stevia suppliers find that by formulating precise blends of various glycosides, they can often find an ideal flavor profile for a specific application.
“You’re seeing the market evolve from single products to blends, and those can be quite sophisticated,” said Nathan Yates, business director, Enliten and NA Sweetness, innovation, Ingredion Inc. (Westchester, IL). This approach, he said, “allows a lot more customization of both the taste profile but also the cost point.”
Suppliers like PureCircle and Cargill (Minneapolis) have also made targeted blends a strategic approach, and in these scenarios, Reb A is often part of the mix. Martin said that as suppliers push for more “diversification” of steviol glycosides, “Reb A might be a component of that, but might not be the main component anymore.”
And although newer glycosides are exciting, formulators should not overlook the fact that Reb A can work quite well on its own in some cases.
“For certain applications, Reb A works fine,” said Andrew Ohmes, Cargill’s product line manager, starches and sweeteners, North America. “If you’re making a 20% sugar-reduced sweet tea, I wouldn’t recommend some of the new technology,” he said. “I would say let’s try with some of the other [glycosides] first, because it might meet your needs."
"We’re not going to force something on you that you don’t need," he continued. "So we start there as a base. If the flavor profile isn’t there, we’ll move up to the new technologies and find a solution for it.”
Reb A may also still be the ideal option for certain global markets. For instance, said Yates, “We see those [glycosides] that are on the lower end of the price spectrum-primarily stevioside or Reb A-in more developing countries as opposed to the newer fractions on the marketplace that tend to be at a higher price point.”
In any case, he said, when you think of the newer glycosides, think of them as “opening new doors as opposed to cannibalizing Reb A.”
“It’s complementary as opposed to cannibalizing,” he said.
Still, there is undeniable pressure on stevia suppliers to pinpoint evermore better-performing glycosides from the stevia leaf. Suppliers are responding in kind.
During IFT, PureCircle announced a $100 million investment in its PureCircle Agronomy Program. Part of expansion will focus on expanding the company’s global footprint.
“This investment will focus on expansion efforts to more than 15 growing regions around the world and further development of the company’s farming footprint outside of China, which will result in a 10,000-hectare pipeline that provides customers with year-round access to the highest-quality PureCircle stevia leaf extract,” the firm said. Expanding markets will have greater access to local stevia supply, and the company will also be able to mitigate any potential supply setbacks with a greater global supply.
Agronomy research will also focus on “breeding new stevia varieties,” the company confirmed. Martin explained how the company is “trying to change some of the ratios of some of those glycosides” within the stevia leaf. “So, if one of the glycosides is at 0.1%, how are we able to get that to a higher concentration? It’s using this research to be able to find out which cultivars have either a higher glycoside content so that all the glycosides would be at a higher concentration, or looking at the ones that are more specific to these rarer types of glycosides and how do we get those to a higher concentration.”
As the firm continues to discover new glycosides, “we’re discovering that each glycoside behaves wildly different than another, on everything from solubility, sweetness power, performance, and the applications it works in,” Martin said. “So for each of those, we’re still doing a lot of evaluation in determining what’s the best use for it.”
With stevia well positioned by now in the U.S. and Europe, stevia suppliers are turning their attention to emerging markets-primarily Asia and Latin America. PureCircle, for instance, has its sights on India, which Martin said is “a new area where we’re doing further expansion.” He also cites growth in Africa.
“We continue to see double-digit growth globally,” added Ingredion’s Yates. “I would say that early-adopting countries have been the more economically developed areas, but we are seeing more and more of the middle-tier countries, and developing countries as well, starting to see growth.”
And while China is the dominant grower of stevia, companies like PureCircle are now focusing on expanding in more regions within China.
Yates also pointed to further growth in South America-where stevia originated-as well as in Europe. “We have almost all of the continents covered,” he said.
First Beverages…Now Baked Goods
By now, beverage makers are well entrenched in the market shift towards sugar reduction. When asked whether new regulatory pushes like FDA’s addition of an “added sugars” line to U.S. Nutrition Facts labels has made a real difference in getting beverage makers to move towards stevia, suppliers say that, actually, beverage firms have been moving in this direction for quite a while. Ohmes said that Cargill’s customers “saw it coming.”
“Beverage has always known that we need to reduce calories and change pack sizes," he said. Part of this pressure has also come from increased regulatory and media attention on high-sugar sodas.
It’s other food categories now also subject to FDA’s nutrition-label changes that are giving stevia serious consideration. The stevia suppliers we spoke to pointed to the bakery and confectionery industries as now showing a lot of interest in stevia. These types of products may be a lot trickier to formulate stevia into, too, primarily because sugar typically plays crucial, functional roles in these food formats, such as bulking.
“Beverages are very easy,” PureCircle’s Martin said. “You take out the sugar, you replace it with water, you add the stevia, and it’s a very easy matrix to work with. These other applications are more of a technical challenge to formulate with.”
Cargill’s Ohmes agreed that confectionery and bakery are the next two big categories for stevia. These products may be “hit a little harder” by growing pressure to cut sugar, simply because they rely so heavily on sugar content. Luckily, stevia looks like a good answer.
Nutritional Outlook magazine