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 the business case for extracting them from stevia leaves is challenging (although some companies are breeding varieties with higher levels of these glycosides - notably PureCircle).
By using yeast to convert sugars into these more desirable glycosides via a microbial fermentation process, Cargill and DSM say they can produce them more efficiently on a commercial scale, although the resulting sweeteners cannot be labeled as ‘stevia leaf extract’ on food labels (as they are not derived from the leaf) and must instead be described as Reb M and Reb D/steviol glycosides/Rebaudioside M and Rebaudioside D.
A match made in heaven?
Speaking to FoodNavigator-USA from the Supply Side West trade show this morning, Andrew Ohmes, global stevia business leader at Cargill, said the Cargill/DSM JV was a "match made in heaven."
He added: "Cargill was at a place where we were trying to further improve our strain and DSM seemed to have a more productive strain, but was looking for production capacity and go to market capabilities. We both have a need and we can bring something to market better faster and at a lower cost for consumers. We never like splitting business if we don't have to, but this makes perfect sense and we'll both end up further ahead in the end.
"We did some blind evaluations when we started discussions and the DSM strain seems to be more productive but the IP that's involved in both strains we feel can be combined to produce the most efficient strain."
DSM Food Specialties President, Patrick Niels added: "It made perfect sense to talk to Cargill because it has unrivalled applications experience and know how in the sweeteners space, whereas we would have had to start from scratch, and secondly Cargill has already started building the plant."
Asked whether the JV was exclusively focused on steviol glycosides, Niels said: "The scope of this joint venture is on steviol glycosides, period. But we are both interested in exploring alternative fermentation based natural high intensity sweeteners [further down the road]."
"Are there customers that only want stevia from the leaf? Absolutely, but there are certainly customers out there that want to switch away from artificial sweeteners and we have a great alternative to formulate with."
Andrew Ohmes, global stevia business leader, Cargill
'An even more scalable, sustainable and low cost-in-use solution'
Under the joint venture, dubbed Avansya, the companies will produce “highly sought-after, sweet-tasting molecules, such as steviol glycosides Reb M and Reb D through fermentation, giving food and beverage manufacturers an even more scalable, sustainable and low cost-in-use solution than if these same molecules were extracted from the stevia leaf.”
According to a joint release issued this morning, DSM brings its biotech know-how to the partnership, providing R&D expertise, strain development and fermentation process development capabilities, as well as customer relationships in specific market segments; while Cargill brings application expertise and a global commercial footprint in the sweetener market, coupled with large-scale fermentation capacity with access to co-located, raw material suppliers in Blair, Nebraska.
The 50:50 joint venture – which is expected to be finalized in the first quarter of calendar year 2019 - will make use of a new fermentation facility in Blair, which is expected to be operational by next summer.
DSM received a ‘no questions’ letter from the FDA in May 2018 to its GRAS (generally recognized as safe) determination for its Avansya Reb M steviol glycoside sweetener, which is produced via a strain of the yeast Y. lipolytica obtained after the mating of two parent Y. lipolytica strains engineered to produce steviol glycosides.
Cargill received a no questions letter from the FDA in spring 2016 to its GRAS determination for EverSweet, its Reb D and Reb M sweetener. By using a genetically engineered baker’s yeast to convert sugars into the most desirable steviol glycosides via a fermentation process.
Do consumers think stevia that’s not from the leaf is ‘natural’?
Speaking to FoodNavigator-USA in March, Ohmes from Cargill, said fermentation based steviol glycosides commanded a price point that worked for major CPG companies, and offered “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.”
Asked to comment on claims made by PureCircle that consumers don’t want stevia that doesn’t come from the stevia leaf, he said:
"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."