Stevia and monk fruit: Innovation in agronomy and formulation

June 11, 2020

To address palatability, suppliers in the industry have developed novel ways to improve the flavor profile of these natural formulas through innovative farming techniques, cutting-edge processing and formulation, and continued experimentation.

Natural sweeteners such as stevia (Stevia rebaudiana) and monk fruit (Siraitia grosvenorii) have skyrocketed in popularity as consumers look for safe, clean-label options to reduce their sugar intake. With the rising prevalence of serious health issues such as obesity and type 2 diabetes, sugar reduction and blood sugar control are top of mind for many.

Industry has stepped up to meet the mounting demand for low- and reduced-sugar foods and beverages featuring ingredients like stevia and monk fruit. According to the Global New Products Database from UK-based market research firm Mintel, the percentage of products containing artificial sweeteners declined between 2014-2019, while the inclusion of natural sweeteners steadily increased. Additionally, a February 2019 presentation from Mintel at the International Sweeteners Colloquium event reported that 59% of surveyed U.S. consumers expressed they would like to see more food and beverages with naturally sourced sweeteners.

Yet, when it comes to foods and beverages (especially sweets), taste is king and consumers have a hard time compromising on flavor and experience. Early introduction of stevia was received with a somewhat tepid response, as many consumers grappled with stevia’s bitter notes and aftertaste.

To address palatability, suppliers in the industry have developed novel ways to improve the flavor profile of these natural formulas through innovative farming techniques, cutting-edge processing and formulation, and continued experimentation.

 

 

Advancements in Agronomy

A primary tactic used to address the issue of taste is the selective breeding of stevia plants to yield higher levels of minor steviol glycosides like rebaudioside M and D. Reb M and Reb D, as they’re commonly called, have a flavor and sweetness more similar to sugar, especially when compared to the legacy, major steviol glycoside rebaudioside A (Reb A).

HB Natural Ingredients (Irvine, CA) has invested in the development of new varieties of stevia with higher concentrations of “more desirable and better-tasting glycosides” like Reb D and Reb M, as well as innovative ways to achieve a higher yield of total glycosides per acre. “While these glycosides have improved taste compared to the more common Reb A, limited availability and high cost still restrict their broad-based use by the industry,” explains Joseph Zannoni, CEO of HB Natural Ingredients.

However, careful consideration must be made at every stage of farming, leading to ever-evolving agronomic techniques and practices. “The large number of different plant varieties used, the different propagation techniques employed, and varying growing conditions from region to region result in significant variability in the quality of the finished extract produced,” he describes.

HB Natural Ingredients is one of a select group of suppliers focused on eliminating several major impediments impacting agronomy. “By utilizing high-glycoside, standardized-variety propagation techniques with large-scale farming plantation, impediments are eliminated, which results in a standardized, traceable leaf,” says Zannoni.

Thom King, head food scientist and CEO at Icon Foods (Portland, OR), points to soil amendments, selective breeding tactics, and extraction through advanced resin bed filtration as prime ways to improve the quality and quantity of glycosides.

PureCircle (Chicago, IL) has developed a new proprietary stevia leaf variety, which the company claims provides significant advantages compared to previous generations of stevia plants. “These new stevia plants yield greater quantities of our next-generation stevia ingredients,” says Alina Slotnik, vice president of global marketing for PureCircle. “That means more efficient production of our best-tasting stevia leaf sweeteners and our flavor-enhancing and functional ingredients,” while improving cost-efficacy and supply chain sustainability.

In a press release from PureCircle, the company explained that in 2019, these next-generation stevia plants made up 20% of its crop, but that the company planned to expand to 90% use of the new varietal in 2020. The company collaborates with farmers across North America, Latin America, Asia, and Africa to cultivate and source its proprietary stevia plants.

When it comes to monk fruit, however, King says agronomy plays a lesser role in the development of its flavor and sweetness, “since it is an actual fruit that grows on trees and has a longer time to maturity.”

However, the vertically integrated producer of plant-based sweeteners, Layn (North Beach, CA) has developed a proprietary variety of monk fruit that can naturally produce 20% more mogrosides. With the increased levels of mogrosides in the new variety, called Super V Fruit, the company aims to reduce the land, water, and other natural resources needed to grow monk fruit, the company said in a press release.

Processing and Formulation

It’s not just how the plants are grown, but how the extracts are formulated and processed that’s important to developing an ideal sweetness and flavor profile.

One popular formulation trend seen in the category is the blending of natural sweeteners to deliver an ideal taste and texture to finished products. The food science division at Icon Food has taken to combining natural sweeteners, King explains, to better replicate the taste, mouthfeel, and functionality of traditional sugar. As an example, he cites the company’s branded sweetening system KetoseSweet+, which combines the rare sugar allulose with stevia and monk fruit. “This combination has parity with the sweetness level of sucrose (table sugar). Since allulose is a saccharide, it functions in Maillard and can activate leavening, making it a perfect plug-and-play sweetening system for baked goods.”

Likewise, HB Natural Ingredients discussed the benefits of blends. Zannoni states, “Given the current range of stevia products and glycosides available for use by finished product manufacturers, blending these extracts and glycosides with other functional ingredients with flavor modification properties has helped formulators develop better tasting, naturally sweetened reduced and sugar-free finished products.”

PureCircle’s new proprietary ingredient- an optimized blend of “next-generation stevia leaf ingredients, including Reb M”- has been launched under the name Sigma Syrup. The company claims the sweetening solution provides “superior taste and overcomes solubility challenges encountered when using other stevia sweeteners in products which are high in sweetness intensity,” says Slotnik.

Avansya- a joint venture between Cargill (Minneapolis, MN) and Royal DSM (Heerlen, Netherlands)-harnessed the powers of fermentation to offer its branded ingredient EverSweet, a zero-calorie natural stevia sweetener. In 2019, the companies unveiled a $50 million fermentation facility in Blair, NE, operated by Cargill. In a press release from Avansya, the companies stated the facility was designed to support the production of EverSweet. The unique ingredient is derived by fermentation-feeding a specially crafted yeast simple sugars, which produces the same glycosides found in traditional stevia leaf.

Additionally, Cargill developed ViaTech Stevia Leaf Extract, a branded line designed to help formulators achieve up to 50% sugar reduction. “At Cargill, we’ve spent more than 300,000 hours studying the unique properties of the stevia leaf, searching for the optimal balance of sweetness and taste. As part of that research, we developed our ViaTech portfolio of stevia leaf extract sweeteners,” explains Andy Ohmes, global director of high-intensity sweeteners for Cargill. “ViaTech uses a proprietary taste-prediction model to precisely predict which combinations of sweet components deliver optimal taste and sweetness.”

Enzyme-modified extracts, such as HB Natural Ingredients’ Vitosa line, allow formulators to improve taste and reduce cost, says Zannoni. “These ingredients overcome the bitterness and delayed sweetness onset seen with traditional leaf extracts, in addition to having a solubility in water over 50%. Furthermore, the Vitosa products provide a uniform and consistent taste profile and are used by formulators as both ‘general use sweeteners’ (FDA GRAS) and as ‘natural flavors’ (FEMA GRAS).” HB Natural Ingredients strategically partnered with Batory Foods (Rosemont, IL), a national distributor in the sweetener solutions category, to solve food and beverage manufacturer challenges associated with stevia and other sweetener systems.

Katharina Pueller, director, natural sweetener business at SweeGen (Rancho Santa Margarita, CA), describes how the plant-based bioconversion of stevia sweeteners is making them more sustainable and scalable. “This means that enzymes are added to a stevia leaf extract and bio-convert molecules into better-tasting ones. This process mimics the maturity process in the leaf. The end products are non-GMO and best-tasting.”

Icon Foods’ King also underscores the benefits of enzymatically modified stevia for both yield and flavor. “The enzymatic addition of glucose moieties to a steviol glycoside structure results in a mix of glucosylated steviol glycosides and steviol glycosides,” he explains. “The glucosylated steviol glycosides have shown to have fewer off-notes and are GRAS status for use in food products.”

 

 

Growing Market Share and Usage

The major forces driving growth of natural sweeteners-sugar reduction and cleaner labels-show no signs of abating.

“As long as the consumer trends continue to lean into clean-label sugar reduction, the demand for clean-label sweeteners and sweetening systems will continue a rapid growth cycle,” predicts King. “Consumers demand clean-label sugar reduction coupled with tastes they can enjoy that replicate sugar without the metabolic effects. Continual innovations in processing methods and agronomy will make constant and never-ending improvements and increased consumer acceptance.”

However, achieving the right taste will remain key, urges Cargill’s Ohmes. “Consumers want reduced-sugar foods and beverages made with familiar ingredients-but not at the expense of great taste.” Taste, he says, will remain “the single biggest driver of purchase intent.”

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