“Consumers are more health conscious and are looking for healthier options made with natural ingredients, and the fact that stevia is a plant-based, zero-calorie sweetener is helping create demand for it,” Maria Teresa Scardigli, the executive director for the International Stevia Council, told FoodNavigator-USA.
She noted that research conducted by ISC found consumer sentiment for stevia significantly higher than other sweeteners, including sucralose and aspartame.
As a result, business to business sales of stevia and new product launches featuring the sweetener have grown dramatically since the ingredient was first introduced in the US in 2009 and Europe in 2011. For example, Scardigli said, business to business sales of stevia are up 80% from 2013-2015 and new product launches were up 12% in 2017 compared to the prior year.
“Already this year, in the first quarter of 2018, new product launches are up 17% compared to the first quarter of 2017. So, we have more than 950 new products this year,” which suggests stevia’s popularity will continue to grow in the coming years, Scardigli said.
She added that at this rate, worldwide business to business sales of the ingredient could top $1 billion by 2020.
“The reasons for growth are clearly the global growth in obesity and diabetes and other heart diseases that are related to sugar, which has prompted regulatory bodies, health professionals and public opinion to call for action to reduce sugar content and calories in sweetened foods and beverages,” she said.
Stevia’s ability to do this while also offering a natural solution is making it a prime choice for reformulation, she said.
[Editor’s note: To learn more about stevia and sugar reduction solutions, tune into FoodNavigator-USA’s Sweeteners and Sugar Reduction Live Forum April 18 at 11:30 ET. The event is free for attendees and registration is fast and simple. Just click HERE.]
Despite the popularity of Stevia, there are a few limitations to the sweetener, although industry is working hard to overcome them, Scardigli admits.
“Stevia is not a drop in solution, like many other sweeteners,” but with an ever growing list of stevia glycosides approved for use in food it is becoming easier to find the best combination for the best taste for different products, Scardigli said.
She explained that there are more than 40 stevia glycosides and currently “10 or 11 that are approved, and more and more are trying to become approved.”
She added that “with so many potential different blends, you can find the sweet or sensory or taste properties that are the perfect combination for your food or drink,” which ultimately means there is more flexibility when using stevia than some other single sweetener.
Another potential drawback for stevia is its higher price point, Scardigli said. “The price is higher than other artificial sweeteners, but it is actually pretty competitive compared with sugar and because you use much less of it than sugar, you can control costs that way.”
She also noted that consumers may be willing to pay a slight premium for products sweetened with Stevia because it is natural and plant-based, which are two popular attributes that shoppers want.
Finally, Scardigli noted that manufacturers also are actively educating consumers to address several misconceptions about stevia.
“Very often people are not familiar with stevia and they have questions about if it is safe. And there is a huge body of science on the safety of stevia – otherwise it would not have been approved, but consumers don’t always know that,” she said.
Another common consumer belief about stevia is that it can leave a bitter or metallic aftertaste, but Scardigli said with so many new glycosides available for unique combinations, plus the addition of other natural sweeteners, the sweetness can be optimized.
ISC’s agenda for future growth
As the popularity of stevia increases, ISC is looking at ways it can improve the sustainability of its supply chain, Scardigli said.
According to the ISC, stevia has an “excellent ‘green’ story,” in that it is up to five times more efficient to grow than sugar for the equivalent sweetness, which “greatly lowers the environmental impacts of food and beverage products.”
Similarly, growing stevia appeals to farmers in rural communities because it offers stronger returns than other options, such as tea and coffee or beans, according to ISC.
To further support these farmers and stevia manufacturers, ISC will step up its promotion efforts of the sweetener in coming years, Scardigli added. “A lot of consumers know about us, but more could learn more and switch to stevia in the future,” as long as we can get the word out, she said.