Derived from a plant native to South America, stevia has grabbed the attention of the western food industry through its potential to become a natural rival to artificial sweetener products currently on the market.
However, although the ingredient has been approved for years in countries such as Japan, Brazil and China, it has not as yet achieved food additive status in the US, Canada and Europe.
"The market for high-intensity low-calorie sweeteners is high and we want to get it approved and on market," Mark Lindley, CPI director of communications, told FoodNavigator-USA.
Instead of waiting for such an approval to come to the US, Corn Products International (CPI) has entered into a long-term agreement with Japanese company Morita Kagaku Kogyo, for the exclusive license of its patented stevia strain, as well as the associated manufacturing technology and marketing and distribution rights.
It is going to market the ingredients in certain Asian and South American markets where it is already approved for use in food.
"In the US it is approved as a dietary supplement, but we are pursuing its approval as a food additive as well," said Lindley.
Marketed under the brand Enliten, the sweetener contains high amounts of rebaudioside A. This stevia component is said to have a sweetening power ranging from 300 to 400 times that of sugar. CPI is marketing the proprietary ingredient for its clean, sweet taste in a variety of foods and beverages.
The company said it intends to draw on an international supply chain and use patented plants in the Northern and Southern hemispheres so as to optimize supply across growing seasons.
"In addition to current access to Morita's production in Japan, Corn Products is committing about $20mn to begin construction this year of a dedicated plant in Brazil, with a year-end 2009 completion date, to meet expected growth in customer demand," Scott said.
CPI has indicated it will file for regulatory approval of Enliten in the US - a process expected to take several years to complete - and is evaluating filing in Europe as well.
As such, the company is investing in anticipation of the potential for future profits from this sweetener.
"While the commercialization and production scale-up of Enliten is not expected to make a significant contribution to our revenues in the near-term," said Sam Scott, CPI chairman, president and CEO, "this is another initiative we are taking to lay the groundwork for longer-term, profitable growth."
CPI is not the only company looking to introduce stevia as a sweetener in the US. Coca-Cola and Cargill teamed together last year to develop their own stevia product, Rebiana.
While Coca-Cola last year filed 24 patent applications for the ingredient, both firms are also expected to petition FDA for approval.
But like CPI, they are not waiting for the ingredient to be approved in the west in order to start marketing their stevia sweetener and products made with it.
CPI contracted farmers in Brazil for the initial growth of the stevia plant for its operations more than a year ago.
"We've been working on this for a while now, and we certainly hope it is going to get approved here in the States," said Lindley.