Under a joint development agreement signed in 2013, Evolva received an option to obtain up to a 45% stake in the business to commercialize the sweeteners, and now says it intends to exercise this option, subject to final terms being agreed between the two partners.
While the best-known steviol glycoside - Reb A – can be extracted from the stevia leaf in commercial quantities, it has a bitter aftertaste that formulators have struggled to overcome in certain applications.
However, better-tasting steviol glycosides such as Reb M and Reb D are present in the stevia leaf in such tiny quantities that it is not commercially viable – or environmentally responsible (you’d need vast tracts of land devoted to stevia plants) - to extract them from stevia leaves.
By using baker’s yeast to covert corn into these more desirable glycosides in a fermentation process, Cargill and Evolva can produce them on a commercial scale, which will enable a “dramatic expansion in the use of next generation stevia sweeteners, allowing food and beverage producers to create new classes of lower calorie products that taste great and are affordable to all”, claim the partners.
While the yeast in question is genetically engineered, it is used as a processing aid, and is not contained in the final product, which is important in regulatory terms as processing aids do not meet the criteria for GMO labeling in Europe or in US states that have passed GMO labeling legislation such as Vermont.
As fermentation is also regarded by the FDA as a natural process (used to make beer, yogurt and many natural flavors), the resulting sweeteners could also be considered ‘natural’, although many anti-GMO activists believe this would be misleading.
Based on market data compiled by Mirabaud Securities and LMC International in 2014, various third-party data and internal market forecasts, Evolva estimates that the total addressable market for fermentation-derived stevia products is around $4bn.
According to the Evolva website: “This market size is considerably in excess of the current stevia market (estimated at around $100-200m at the ingredient level) but is in turn a small fraction of the total sweetener market (estimated at some $60-70bn).”