Stevia: The holy grail of sweeteners?

By Caroline Scott-Thomas

- Last updated on GMT

The FDA’s non-objection in December that the stevia-derived sweetener Reb A was generally recognized as safe (GRAS) was greeted with much fanfare – but how has it been received so far by industry and consumers?

Two companies, Cargill and the Whole Earth Sweetener Company, a subsidiary of Merisant, developed scientific dossiers for Reb A that they submitted to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last year. Cargill developed its Truvia brand in collaboration with Coca-Cola, while the Whole Earth Sweetener Company joined with PepsiCo to produce its PureVia brand.

Reb A was hailed variously at the time as the ‘holy grail of sweeteners’ and ‘the third generation’ of sweeteners due to being calorie-free as well as all-natural – a quality that tops the list of new product launch claims, according to Mintel’s Global New Products Database.

Laying the groundwork

Although products sweetened with stevia-derived sweeteners are still few – Mintel says that only seven have been released since the beginning of the year – major groundwork has been laid to allow for the expected flood of new Reb A-sweetened products to come in the months and years ahead.

Standards have been developed by analytical reference providers Cerilliant and ChromaDex for use by food and beverage manufacturers to verify the quality of their Reb A ingredients; and stevia production has been ramped up, with major supplier PureCircle, for example, aiming to double supply of Reb A over a 12-month period to 10,000 metric tonnes.

Solutions to the sometimes problematic bitter or licorice-like aftertaste associated with the sweetener have also been developed. Almost as soon as the FDA’s non-objection was announced, flavor companies stepped up, with bitterness blockers, flavor maskers and sweetness extenders.

The product launches

Then there are those companies among the first to launch Reb A-sweetened foods and beverages: Coca-Cola’s Sprite Green, sweetened with Truvia, for example, came in at second place in the sweeteners category of a recent Mintel taste test.

And last week, PepsiCo issued its second quarter results – a mixed bag – but of its new Reb A offerings it said: “Our naturally-sweetened, zero-calorie products featuring stevia-based PureVia are successful. SoBe LifeWater, the fastest growing enhanced water brand, recorded very impressive growth rates, and Trop50 is also performing well.”

Furthermore, PepsiCo’s Reb A supplier PureCircle said earlier this month that it expects a 420 percent profit increase to $11m when it announces its full year results for the year ended June 30 in September. PureCircle currently has 25 customers including the beverage giant and claims it is in talks with more than 100 food and drink brands over new product launches.

So, although questions have also been raised about possible limitations to the sweetener’s market success, including its higher cost relative to other sweeteners, major beverage companies using Reb A – as well as the major suppliers – appear unconcerned as production has been scaled up and costs have begun to come down.

Whether it will be embraced on a large scale by consumers is yet to be seen, but early indications have been promising, and so far many are still touting it as the holy grail.

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