Stevia First, an early stage company based in Yuba City, CA, has built its business model on bringing stevia production onshore in the US. Supply chain transparency and technical innovation are the two pillars on which the company is built, said CEO Robert Brooke.
The supply chain issues that are common to stevia and other botanical ingredients can be stumbling blocks for major food and beverage manufacturers, Brooke said. The company saw a window of opportunity there, he added.
“It’s important to bring added transparency and regulatory standards to stevia production in order to enable to bring a new wave of growth to the industry,” Brooke told FoodNavigator-USA.
“If you have Coca Cola and Pepsi and Cargill and other major food and beverage manufacturers looking to make investments in the space, you have to look at what’s going to hold them back or what’s going to enable them to do that.
"The more you can add transparency and reliability and scalability to the supply chain for stevia, it makes it all the more likely that they will soon make those investments."
Two-pronged production approach
Stevia First is pushing the cultivation of stevia in California, and all that means for peace of mind for major customers. But it is also pursuing technology that would enable the production of stevia sweeteners independent of an agricultural process, Brooke said.
“It’s not strictly just that we are America and the other supplies are coming from overseas,” Brooke said. “We are using a fairly novel fermentation-based approach for the production of stevia.
“There are a couple of different production modes. One is you could obtain nature identical steviol glycosides derived purely from fermentation. In another production mode you could use organically grown stevia leaf here from California and then use fermentation to direct the production of most desirable steviol glycosides.
"For instance, you could use fermentation to take a less desirable glycoside like a stevioside or a Reb A and convert all of that to a Reb D or another more desirable next generation stevia sweetener that might be just as sweet but have less bitterness or other properties that might it more desirable as a beverage ingredient,” he said.
But that nature-identical path wouldn’t marry well with a ‘natural’ label positioning. And it certainly wouldn’t fly for an organic claim, and Brooke said the company is well aware that that sector of the market is growing and features committed consumers.
“There are always going to be different consumer preferences, not only related to taste but related to their values or ideals. A lot of the appeal of stevia is that is natural or plant derived. So of course we want to cater to those consumers as well,” Brooke said.
“We are pursing organic stevia leaf cultivation in California and we expect that to be a part of the market of years to come. But at the same time we want to pursue a mainstream healthy solution. We want to enable calorie reduction for the masses. And one of the ways we think we can do that is to provide a very reliable, economical, scalable supply for these glycosides from fermentation,” Brooke said.
A key issue with the supply of the most desirable glycosides is their relative scarcity in the raw stevia leaves. While plant breeding might change those ratios, it’s unlikely that needle can be moved much given how rare they are to begin with.
“What makes fermentation so appealing (for those glycosides) is that they are very rare in nature. The common varieties of stevia leaf that are out there have less than 1% concentration of Reb D in them. So it becomes very costly to refine those most desirable steviol glycosides,” Brooke said.
As far as the production of the plants is concerned, Stevia First is ideally situated in California’s Central Valley with its favorable climate and close to its research partner, the University of California-Davis, Brooke said. The region features a dense concentration of agricultural innovators, he said.
“What we are working at is to launch a turnkey grower network. What will make the cultivation and harvest of stevia in the US feasible is using mechanized and automated methods. In China or South America it’s still grown on relatively small plots,” Brooke said.
“The Central Valley is home to $13 billion plus in agricultural goods. It has the right kind of infrastructure. The innovators here in agriculture are second to none. You bring a crop to market here, not only are you able to produce it, but you able to double or triple it’s yield fairly quickly,” Brooke said.
Brooke said Stevia First has test plots under cultivation and has already made strides in improving yields. For example, a recent test found that exposing plants briefly to red light after dark lengthened the amount of time the plant would grow before flowering and setting seed, making for increased leaf yields and higher glycoside concentrations in the leaves.
As far as the fermentation development goes, Brooke said the company plans to have a bio-identical, GRAS affirmed ingredient on the market in late 2014.