Both industries understand that consumers are increasingly seeking natural ingredients and, by working together, it is possible that there could be mutual benefits, according to PureCircle’s corporate vice president of supply chain Dorn Wenninger, who spoke at the conference. Members of the sugar industry invited PureCircle to attend the conference to discuss combining the sweeteners to create natural, lower calorie blends for a wide range of applications.
Wenninger told FoodNavigator-USA.com: “At first I thought people were surprised but they were very receptive to us…We see sugar as partners. What our customers are telling us is that people want natural – and sugar and stevia, we are the natural sweeteners.”
From 'diet' to mainstream
He added that recently the image of stevia has moved on from a purely ‘diet’ ingredient to a much more mainstream position.
“Initially our customers thought of us as the all-natural diet product, but what we have seen over the past 12 months in particular is that our customers have begun to see us as more than that. Stevia can and will play an important role in the sweetener system for lower calories. At a 20 percent substitution, the taste profile is identical, so what you are able to do is have the same great taste with 20 percent less calories.”
However, Wenninger is clear that stevia is not in competition with sugar, but that the two sweeteners could help each other’s industry, even though he admits that this might sound counterintuitive. He said the sugar industry is talking about increasing sugar demand over the coming years.
“Of course people’s initial reaction is that stevia is going to take market share,” he said. “…But when the sugar market grows at three percent, the stevia market, because it’s starting from such a small base, even to keep up with the equivalent three percent, stevia has to grow at double digits for years on end.”
He added: “After water, sugar is the most used ingredient in the world, so one has to be realistic.”
Stevia outside the US
Wenninger also spoke about the market opportunities for steviol glycosides other than Reb A, the high purity component of the stevia leaf that gained FDA GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status last year. Although other steviol glycosides are only approved for use as dietary supplements in the US, they have JECFA (the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives) approval in other parts of the world, including some very promising markets, such as Mexico.
“We are committed to getting the price [of Reb A] to at or below that of sugar in the long term. For large-scale uses we are there, or close to there, already. The price of JECFA-spec steviol glycosides is already well below that of sugar,” he said. “Mexico adopted the JECFA spec, as did Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, and much of Asia and Latin America.”
Wenninger said that there have been three main drivers for combining sugar and stevia: Its declining price in relation to sugar; pull from consumers for natural products; and the “great work of flavor houses”.