The great appeal of stevia-derived sweeteners is that they are all-natural and calorie-free. So when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued letters to two companies last December saying that it had no objection that Reb A – the high purity sweetener from the leaves of the stevia plant – was GRAS (generally recognized as safe), there was much excitement among manufacturers. Even so, taste issues have remained for some of these pioneering products, which can have a bitter or licorice-like aftertaste.
Senior analyst at Mintel David Browne told FoodNavigator-USA.com: “Taste is what it’s all about. In this segment it’s essential… I think that of the products that are out there right now, some of them don’t taste very good. There is a real ‘what if’ in the market: Is the taste good enough to convert consumers?”
Manufacturers are keen to retain a natural designation for their products: It was the number one label claim last year, appearing on 23 percent of new product labels, according to Mintel’s Global New Products Database. Natural products’ popularity with consumers means that companies looking to blend stevia with other sweeteners to help deal with flavor issues have only a few options. Finished products using Reb A that are on the market so far have used blends with erythritol or xylitol (natural, calorie-free sugar alcohols), and even sugar – which obviously means the product loses its ‘zero-calorie’ claim.
No mention of stevia
Meanwhile, major new products, such as Vitamin Water 10, have been released without drawing attention to the fact that they contain Reb A.
Browne said: “Some companies aren’t really mentioning they are using stevia at all, which is really strange. They market it as all-natural but don’t mention stevia. They are trying to get straight to what consumers are looking for.”
However, if these products are perceived as not tasting as good as full-calorie or artificially-sweetened alternatives, Browne thinks consumers could turn their backs on them for good.
“If a consumer purchases a new product like Vitamin Water for the first time, and determines what it is, they may never try stevia again. That hurts those companies that have come up with better tasting stevia too,” he said.
Another reason for manufacturers to keep quiet about stevia in their new, all-natural products is that many of them are still using artificial sweeteners in other parts of their range.
Browne said: “Companies that also use artificial sweeteners are very hesitant to badmouth those sweeteners. I can understand why.”
Artificial sweetener blends
There is another option available for manufacturers that are using stevia-derived sweeteners – artificial sweeteners blended with stevia could lead to better flavors. This is yet to enter the frame in a significant way, although Browne points out that there is a precedent: Ideal is a tabletop sweetener that has positioned itself as ‘more than 99 percent natural’. It uses a blend of xylitol and, according to its website, “a very small amount of sucralose for added sweetness.”
“In the next year they[manufacturers] are going to focus on all-natural first but if consumers that are trying the products don’t like them they will go back to the drawing board and try products with a mostly natural, 90 percent, or 99 percent natural claim…There are going to be options that use artificial sweeteners and stevia together,” said Browne. “Obviously there will be some consumers that won’t accept that.”
He added that although the stevia market is still in its infancy, Mintel expects sales to exceed $100m this year, with high purity Reb A accounting for 80 percent of this.
Mintel values the whole of the sugar substitutes industry at $800m.