PureCircle’s first move was developing a proprietary strain of the stevia plant, StarLeaf, which contains 20 times the amounts of Reb D and Reb M. The company announced in February that it would be transitioning roughly 80% of its total stevia crop to StarLeaf in 2018, planting nearly 16,000 tons this year (a 200% increase).
Its second method is a proprietary production process directly using the more abundant and readily available Reb A glycoside found in conventional stevia leaves as well as StarLeaf to make a “identical” product that tastes “exactly the same” as Reb D and Reb M, PureCircle said.
PureCircle could not provide more details on what makes this product using Reb A identical to Reb D and Reb M due to "competitive reasons" and because much of its production is covered by patents and other intellectual property. The company did share that its processes are much different than the fermentation techniques used by competitors such as Cargill to make the sought-after Reb D and Reb M stevia sweeteners.
“Both of these production methods differ greatly from fermentation, which does not start with stevia plants, but instead uses a genetically modified yeast to create a chemical structure identical to Reb M and D,” PureCircle VP of marketing and innovation, Faith Son, told FoodNavigator-USA.
“According to our proprietary research, consumers are turning to stevia because they want a zero-calorie ingredient which is from nature, non-GMO, and derived directly from the stevia leaf.”
Compared to cane sugar, cultivation of stevia also requires fewer resources like water and land because products need less of it to achieve a sugar-like taste as parts of the stevia leaf are 400 times sweeter than regular sugar, she claimed.
Like PureCircle’s other stevia sweeteners, its StarLeaf Reb D and Reb M extraction and the identical product also meet the FDA’s GRAS designation and can be labeled as "stevia leaf sweetener" on products.
Future of stevia
When PureCircle was founded in 2002, stevia was a “little known, plant-based zero-calorie sweetener – basically one ingredient, Reb A – that worked well in some beverage and food applications”, the company said.
Since 2002 and through its investment in research and development of the stevia plant, PureCircle has gone on to identify 40 different glycosides in the leaf and holds 72 stevia-related approved patents and 200 pending, the company said.
Son previously told FoodNavigator-USA: “As an industry we’ve learned so much. For a start, we learned that Reb A, was just not enough. The taste is just not there from a consumer standpoint and I think we made a bit of a mistake as an industry by focusing too much on that one part of the leaf.”
Despite some pervasive bitter taste associations, the use of stevia in food and beverage products is on the rise, increasing more than 10% in 2017 compared to 2016, according to Mintel.
Top categories for product launches containing stevia last year included snacks, juice drinks, dairy, carbonated soft drinks, and confectionery with a growing emphasis on low- and zero-calorie products designed for kids (ages five to 12), Mintel found.
In 2017, launches of products containing stevia with a claim for kids (aged 5-12) increased 16% from 2016.
Capri Sun Roarin’ Waters line, a light fruit-flavored water beverage, replaced high-fructose corn syrup and artificial sweetener sucralose with stevia in 2015 and more recently, introduced stevia as the sole sweetener of its Capri Sun Sport products. In the UK, the Capri Sun’s core juice pouch line unveiled a new recipe using a blend of sugar and stevia, exempting it from the country’s recently imposed sugar tax.
PureCircle said it now has the commercial supply to provide food and beverage companies across categories with its best-tasting stevia leaf sweetener ingredients (Reb D and Reb M) to formulate zero- or reduced-calorie products.
The company’s CEO Maga Malsagov added “large-scale volumes are now available at attractive prices.”