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Does nature-identical stevia lose stevia's "natural" positioning?
Stevia, as we know it today, is promoted as a natural, plant-derived, no-calorie sweetener. But what about the stevia of tomorrow? As technologies emerge in the years to come, how might stevia’s value proposition change, particularly if new production techniques are seen as taking stevia away from its “natural” roots? Would consumers still be as sweet on stevia?
Those questions came to mind as I wrote this issue’s stevia story, which looks at production via fermentation. That is, instead of traditional production methods involving extracting steviol glycosides from the stevia leaf, a few companies are now exploring how to employ startup materials like yeast and simple sugar, and the power of fermentation, to produce those same steviol glycosides.
The companies working in this space cite many of fermentation’s advantages, of which you can read about in the article here. But, even as I learned about the benefits, I wondered: If you are producing steviol glycosides in, say, fermentation vessels and no longer extracting them from the stevia leaf, can the resulting glycosides still be considered “natural”? (This bears in mind, of course, that the word natural has no formal definition.) Think about all of the marketing campaigns depicting the stevia leaf-i.e., stevia’s natural origin-front and center. A picture of a fermentation operation just doesn’t have the same “natural” allure.
Robert Brooke, CEO of Stevia First Corp., who I interviewed, answered thusly when I asked whether fermentation-derived stevia would be considered “nature-identical” or “synthetic.” “I stay out of all of the nomenclature, for the most part,” he replied. “The fermentation-derived product would be the same Reb A or steviol glycosides that are found within the stevia leaf that have been used for hundreds of years. But, yes, I mean, at the end of the day, you are harnessing a natural biological process to produce the same steviol glycosides that are found in nature.”
Brooke points out that many standard vitamins in dietary supplements are produced by fermentation. Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of the American Botanical Council, says the same, mentioning L-theanine and CoQ10 as ingredients largely made by fermentation.
Blumenthal also points out that many fermented food products are considered natural, not synthetic-think beer, wine, kimchee, and sauerkraut. How we define a product-natural vs. synthetic-depends on how we define the production process, he says. Most would consider the fermentation used to create kimchee or beer as natural or, as Blumenthal puts it, “a very low-tech way of getting yeast to work on the sugars and turn them into alcohols and/or other compounds, with minimal processing and technology.”
However, if the fermentation process were more complex, feelings might change. “When you get to ‘higher’ technology, at some point it might be reasonable to say that it is no longer a natural process if it wouldn’t happen naturally unless you aided and abetted it, or synergized it, through some high-tech means. It depends on how much that ‘natural’ process depends on modern technology.”
Thus, fermentation-derived stevia could be considered natural-or “semi-natural” or even “fully synthetic.” It depends on which side of the line you stand on. And, of course, “There’s no line in the sand that says that at this specific point, you’re considered natural, and at this other point, you become semi-synthetic or semi-natural,” Blumenthal says.
In a world in which “nature-identical” stevia may soon be reality, suppliers may one day compete on claims of natural vs. synthetic, traditionally extracted vs. fermented. Chris Tower, president of Layn USA Inc., adds, “In the United States…given the heavy body of litigation specific to ‘natural’ claims that we witness in the food/beverage industry, I think it might be a slippery slope to promote one’s product as ‘nature identical.’ I personally would take an extremely conservative approach on that front and have adequate resources proactively in place to defend against challenges. Clearly, the terminology nature identical and the debate around what is ‘natural’ is a complex subject, and I think there will never exist universal consensus among independent-thinking consumers on this topic.”
At the end of the day, does the difference matter? Maybe not. Brooke says, “If we can produce a nature-identical product, at low cost, that tastes great and enables people to reduce their sugar intake, it’s progress, for sure.”