The new joint business is called GLG Weider Sweet Naturals Corp (or Sweet Naturals) and it is already focusing on the sale of stevia-based dietary and tabletop supplements. However, it is positioning itself for an expansion in the stevia market should regulations in countries such as the US change.
Stevia is permitted for sale as a dietary supplement in the US on the basis of its low glycemic index. However, it does not have FDA GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status for use in food and beverages.
GLG specializes in growing, refining, and producing high-grade stevia extract and claims to be the leading supplier of high quality stevia production in China. The joint venture will combine its expertise with the marketing, sales and distribution capabilities of WGN.
The products will focus on high quality stevia extract, including Rebpure, an industrial powder with 97 percent pure Rebaudioside A (also known as rebiana and Reb A).
David Bishop, the executive VP for international affairs with GLG, counts Cargill among its clients and said that companies were lining up to ensure they are in a position to bring food and drink products to market.
Bishop told FoodNavigator-USA.com: “We are finding a lot of serious interest for our products from companies that presently have a use for them and those that are anticipating the changes in regulation. They want to be ready to go with stevia-based products when they can.”
In anticipation of this demand, GLG has been rapidly expanding and expects to open two new stevia processing plants in China, in addition to its existing plant. This will increase its primary processing volumes of Rebaudioside A from 300 metric tons per year to 2,000 metric tons per year.
Products on the market
Cargill, which has a deal with Coca-Cola, is already selling its rebiana brand Truvia online as a table-top sweetener, and Wisdom Natural Brands offers it own SweetLeaf stevia sweetener.
The Whole Earth Sweetener Company, a subsidiary of Merisant Company, has joined with PepsiCo and is due to launch its Reb A brand PureVia as a tabletop as well.
Meanwhile drinks containing stevia have hit shop shelves in the US under the supplements banner, including Zevia which is marketed as an all-natural, zero-calorie alternative to diet sodas.
Sweet Naturals products will fall under the “Sweete” label but WGN, which is based in Utah and manufactures, markets, distributes and sells vitamins, nutritional supplements and sports nutrition products, already sells a sweetener called Stevia Sweet.
Rick Blair, CEO of WGN, said stevia was a promising new market and added: “Already we have been able to use GLG’s high-quality stevia in our product lines in Canada and the United States in large retailers such as Wal-mart and Safeway.
“As a strong, healthy and unique product, we expect stevia to truly impact the food and beverage industry in a large way and look forward to playing a role alongside the world’s leading stevia producer.”
According to the agreement, GLG will own a controlling interest of 55 percent of the venture, which will commence operations immediately, and WGN 45 percent.
Rebiana is the sweetest, purest part of the leaf from the South American stevia plant, which is approximately 200 times as sweet as sugar.
The US market for stevia is estimated to be worth about $60m, a figure analysts say could triple with FDA GRAS.
Currently, stevia is authorized for general food use in countries including Japan, South Korea, Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay. In China and some Western European countries, it is allowed for sale as a dietary supplement.
Cargill and Merisant have notified the FDA that rebiana should be GRAS. Wisdom, the US's largest supplier of stevia, said that SweetLeaf is self affirmed GRAS, without FDA notification, and the ingredient will be available in soda or food products by the end of the year.
However, a recent review of safety data carried out by toxicologists on behalf of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, concluded that further tests were needed on potential cancer causing properties before the sweetener is used in food and drink.
It said that carcinogenicity studies have not found stevioside (which differs slightly from rebiana) to be carcinogenic in rats but further studies on rebiana, including a study on mice, are needed.