The proprietary process is potentially game-changing in that Stevia First can get “two or even three times the amount of Reb A [the most abundant and popular steviol glycoside in the stevia leaf] from the same amount of starting material”, CEO Robert Brooke told FoodNavigator-USA.
While its first commercial product produced via this novel process will be high purity Reb A, Stevia First can also convert Reb A into other desirable steviol glycosides such as Reb D and Reb X using the same technology, he claimed.
Enzyme enhancement program could more than double the value of the input starting material
“The stevia enzyme enhancement program could more than double the value of the input starting material.
"We are using low-grade stevia extract derived from the stevia leaf, such as a product that contains a mixture of stevioside, Reb A, and other steviol glycosides. It is mostly stevioside and Reb A however, and they're often found in roughly equal quantities.
"Instead of purifying out Reb A, which is common in industry today, we are converting stevioside directly to Reb A. This enables us to convert a ~$40/kg low-grade stevia extract into a ~$100/kg purified Reb A product, and to obtain roughly twice the amount of purified Reb A per kg of leaf."
Separately, work is also progressing on producing all of these steviol glycosides entirely via a microbial fermentation process using different raw materials (ie. not stevia leaves) that would "bypass entirely the need for stevia leaf cultivation", he said.
The plan is to construct an initial 150-ton capacity extraction facility in California
Aside from its technology, however, a key part of Stevia First's appeal to food and beverage customers in North America will be its all-American infrastructure, claimed Brooke.
While most stevia is grown and processed in China or Latin America, Stevia First - via its newly-created operating subsidiary SF Pure - is building extraction and refining/purification facilities near its HQ in Yuba City, CA, that will use locally-grown stevia leaf as their raw materials, he said.
“The plan is to construct an initial 150-ton capacity extraction facility and incorporate into the plans room for additional growth.”
Meanwhile, Stevia First has also succeeded in planting, cultivating, and harvesting organic stevia in California using mechanized equipment in a commercial crop production setting and identified and secured stevia plants that have improved glycoside profiles, he claimed.
Leaf-derived vs fermentation-derived stevia…
But what will Reb A produced using this novel enzymatic process look like on the ingredients label, what is its regulatory status, and will customers and consumers consider it to be ‘natural’?
The company is a little sketchy on the first point, and says the jury is out on the last - although the fact that the enzyme used in the process is from the stevia leaf itself supports a more natural positioning, said Brooke.
As for its regulatory status, Stevia First is going through the self-determined GRAS process and aims to have all its ducks in a row for a 2015 launch, he said.
There is going to be a market for leaf-derived and fermentation derived products
As for microbial fermentation-derived steviol glycosides - something that Cargill is also working on with partner Evolva (click HERE) - Stevia First is not yet talking publicly about timelines for commercialization, he said.
But there are clear cost advantage from this production method, he said. “Some of these glycosides are only found in tiny quantities in the leaf, so this is just a much more cost-effective way of producing them.
"Leaf costs currently account for 70%, if not much more, of the cost of stevia extract production. There is going to be a market for leaf-derived and fermentation derived products.”
The stevia industry is still relatively fragmented
While there are already significant ‘pure-play’ suppliers in the stevia market such as PureCircle as well as ingredient giants such as Ingredion, Cargill and Tate & Lyle with applications specialists and long-established relationships with food and beverage customers, there is still room for innovative new market entrants, he claimed.
“The stevia industry is still relatively fragmented.”
And while the road to profitability has proved bumpy for many players in the stevia supply market, there is no doubt that the “long term trend is one of growth”, he said.
Tie up with Qualipride in China
This month, however, the big news for Stevia First is a tie up with Chinese firm Qualipride International, which is already a significant player in the stevia supply market, with current customers including multinational ingredient companies and wholesalers in the U.S. and Europe, claimed Brooke.
“This alliance will instantly give us access to large overseas production capacity, sales relationships with key multinational customers, and a concrete and actionable plan for construction of modern stevia extraction and purification facilities in California."
Qualipride has been in business for 15+ years and has access to 2,000+ tons of stevia production capacity annually, he added.
Under the deal, SF Pure will substantially take over Qualidpride’s stevia sales and distribution business, which sold 600+ tons of stevia extract in the past 12 months, he said.
SF Pure will also have exclusive rights outside of China to use extraction and purification technology developed by Qualipride, he said, noting that the new SF Pure facilities in California will use Qualipride technology.
This is completely separate from Stevia First's enzyme enhancement process, which he said "could act as an independent business" and could be "scaled up through contract manufacturers and strategic partners".