The sweetener is currently being produced at an undisclosed location, but will be manufactured in larger quantities at a Cargill facility in Blair, Nebraska later this year, while Cargill has “moved to a royalty model” with Evolva, Andrew Ohmes, global stevia business leader for Cargill told FoodNavigator-USA.
“We’ll retain the IP rights to continue bringing fermentation-based steviol glycosides to market and we’ve also agreed on additional high intensity sweeteners for future development as well using the IP developed by Evolva.”
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 (less than 0.5% by dry leaf weight), Cargill and Evolva claim that it is not commercially viable or environmentally responsible to extract them from stevia leaves – a view disputed by market leader PureCircle, which says it is “now absolutely commercially viable” to source minor glycosides from the leaf.
By using a genetically engineered baker’s yeast to convert sugars (Cargill is using corn dextrose as a feedstock but could use cane sugar) into these more desirable glycosides via a fermentation process, Cargill and Evolva can produce them on a commercial scale.
‘The process of fermentation is more scalable and cost effective’
EverSweet was originally scheduled to hit the market in 2016 following a soft launch at the Supply Side West show in 2015. However, while Cargill and Evolva claimed to have nailed the taste, they acknowledged in March 2016 that they had yet to refine the production process such that costs were at an acceptable level.
Today, said Ohmes, they have a product with a price point that works for major CPG companies, plus “better upfront sweetness, faster onset and a more round sweet taste and no bitterness, giving it a clear advantage over many stevia products out there today.”
He added: “The process of fermentation is more scalable and cost effective [than extracting minor glycosides from the stevia leaf], but we also have options for customers that want a product from the stevia leaf, and we're still working on agronomy programs to increase the levels of Reb D+M and other glycosides.
"It’s all about offering choices. Even within the same company, you might have 10 different brands each making a different promise to the consumer."
EverSweet works particularly well in low and zero calorie beverages
While the production process has been getting more media attention than the products, the feedback from leading CPG companies suggests EverSweet could be a game-changer in the beverage industry as firms look to make more drastic reductions in sugar, said Ohmes.
If the first wave of Reb-A sweeteners enabled sugar reductions of 30%, and platforms such as Cargill’s leaf-based ViaTech solutions have since pushed the bar to 75% or more in a carbonated soft drink, Reb D and Reb M can deliver 100% sugar reductions in products such as zero calorie colas, without any compromise in taste, he claimed.
"It's really for the deepest sugar reductions."
'Specially crafted baker's yeast'
On its website, Cargill is careful to avoid the phase 'genetically engineered' and instead describes the yeast used to produce EverSweet as 'specially crafted.' However, it is very transparent about how it is manufactured, explaining:
"For nearly four decades, scientists have been introducing different genes into yeast. Cargill used this same proven approach to develop our yeast which produces sweet steviol glycosides. First, our team determined the specific enzymes the plant used to create the sweetest steviol glycosides called Reb D and Reb M.
"Once our scientists understood which enzymes the stevia plant used to make steviol glycosides, they looked for genes that control the production of those enzymes that work best in yeast. The genes used include genes from the stevia plant and other plants, such as blackberry and rice. The genes perform the same function as the genes in the stevia plant, but more efficiently. This enables our yeast to become a mini-factory, converting simple sugar into Reb M and Reb D far more efficiently and in much greater quantity than a stevia plant.
"Once our yeast completes its steviol glycoside production, the mixture is heated, inactivating the yeast cells. At that point, the yeast is removed through a filtering process similar to the carbon filters you might find in a water purification system."
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Do consumers care how steviol glycosides are produced?
However, stevia rivals PureCircle and Sweet Green Fields have both queried how the market will respond to EverSweet, given that the primary reason food and beverage manufacturers started experimenting with stevia in the first place was precisely due to its ‘natural’ credentials (it’s from a leaf).
PureCircle VP global marketing and innovation, Faith Son, told FoodNavigator-USA last year, that while EverSweet Reb D+M might be chemically identical to the Reb D+M extracted from a stevia leaf, consumers may view it differently:
“From a market perspective in terms of what consumers are ultimately looking for, the fact that it [EverSweet] doesn’t come from the stevia plant flies in the face of everything that we know from our proprietary consumer research and all market research into what consumers are looking for.”
Thom King, CEO at sweetener supplier Icon Foods, said he didn’t think consumers were sufficiently aware of the nuances of the stevia production process to understand that steviol glycosides might not necessarily come from the stevia leaf, and that such fears might be a little overblown.
But he added: “The people that do think about this are the class action lawyers, who are in it for the money. With these created steviol glycosides, lawyers could launch a class action lawsuit if a manufacturer labels a product containing these sweeteners as ‘all-natural.’”
What is EverSweet? A high-potency sweetener developed by Swiss synthetic biology pioneer Evolva and US ingredients giant Cargill comprising the steviol glycosides Reb D and Reb M (which are found naturally in the stevia leaf in very low concentrations).
What does it taste like? According to Evolva, EverSweet “delivers better sweetness intensity, faster sweetness onset and improved sweetness quality – without the bitterness or off-note aftertaste common to existing stevia sweeteners.”
How is it made? In large fermentation tanks, in which a genetically engineered baker’s yeast converts sugars (in this case, corn dextrose) into Reb D and Reb M. The yeast is completely removed from the final product, which is further concentrated and purified.
How is it labeled in the US? Reb M and Reb D/steviol glycosides/Rebaudioside M and Rebaudioside D.
What are the potential applications? Everything from dairy to tabletop sweeteners and alcoholic beverages, but low or zero calorie beverages are the sweet spot.
Is it safe? In summer 2016, the FDA issued a GRAS (generally recognized as safe) no objections letter for EverSweet, qualifying it for use in food and beverages.
When will it launch? It’s available now!
Is it ‘natural’? Cargill isn’t actively marketing EverSweet as a ‘natural sweetener,’ but Ohmes says it is up to its customers to decide how to market products featuring the ingredient, said Ohmes, who claimed that US food manufacturers were moving away from using the term 'natural' in food marketing owing to the lack of clarity over its meaning. As for the GMO factor, he added: "We are very transparent and clear about the way we produce Eversweet on our website."
Is it non-GMO? The genetically engineered yeast used to make EverSweet serves as a processing aid, and is not present in the final product, meaning it would not require a GMO label under new federal GMO labeling legislation. However, it may not pass muster with the Non-GMO Project, which says ingredients produced via ‘synthetic biology’ do not qualify for its Non-GMO Project Verified stamp.