The stevia sweeteners market has become more complex in recent years, with...
- sweeteners extracted from stevia leaves;
- sweeteners made with stevia leaf extracts as a starting material that then undergo an enzymatic conversion process to get to the better tasting steviol glycosides such as Reb M;
- and finally sweeteners such as Reb M made via fermentation of sugars with genetically engineered yeast. (Cargill and DSM have teamed up in this space to make Eversweet via the Avansya joint venture.)
While this 'fermented' Reb M does not involve stevia leaves at all, so can't be described as a 'stevia leaf extract,' it is chemically identical to the Reb M found in the stevia plant, and can be described in several different ways on food labels, said Nate Yates, VP of Sweetener Solutions at Ingredion.
“Some labeling options are sugarcane Reb M, fermented sugarcane Reb M, Rebaudioside M, stevia Reb M, and steviol glycoside."
Under the $100m deal - which is expected to close in the second quarter - Ingredion has acquired an exclusive license to sell and market Amyris’s Reb M, which is produced by a strain of yeast that feeds on cane sugar, and will also work with Amyris on other fermentation-based sweeteners and ingredients, Jim Iacoponi, SVP B2B sweeteners at Amyris, told FoodNavigator-USA.
“Amyris and Ingredion plan to collaborate on R&D programs leveraging Amyris’ biotech platform. These projects will mostly, but not necessarily exclusively, be focused on other sweetener products targeted at sugar reduction and could explore other applications, such as plant-based proteins.”
Ingredion will also take a minority stake in Amyris’ new Brazilian manufacturing facility, which is currently under construction, while Amyris will earn a profit share from Reb M sales and will continue to own and market its Purecane consumer brand of tabletop and culinary sweeteners, said Iacoponi.
“We are on track to complete the construction of our new integrated biorefinery at Barra Bonita in Brazil in Q4, 2021. Since 2018 and through today, we have been producing our Reb M completely in Brazil, through our partnership with DSM (at the former Amyris fermentation facility) and at a purification and finishing location where we have implemented our state-of-the-art production technology.”
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 can be commercially challenging to extract them from stevia leaves, although Purecircle (now owned by Ingredion) has made progress on breeding stevia varieties that contain higher levels of Reb M.
By using a genetically engineered baker’s yeast to convert sugars (Amyris is using cane sugar as a feedstock, while Cargill uses corn sugar) into these more desirable glycosides via a fermentation process, they can produced more efficiently, with a lower carbon footprint, claim the companies.
There's more than one way to get to Reb M
While there are pros and cons to each approach, producing the scarcest – but best-tasting - steviol glycosides in the stevia leaf, such as Reb M, via fermentation can offer key benefits over extracting Reb M from stevia plants, including greater efficiency, consistent purity, and lower water and land usage, according to Amyris, which has studied how the stevia plant creates Reb M and reverse engineered the process to reproduce exactly the same molecule using a different production platform (yeast).
“Amyris’s RealSweet sugarcane Reb M - which is 250-350x sweeter than sugar depending on the application - is unique as it is produced from Brazilian sugarcane, which is non-GMO and Bonsucro certified as a sustainable source of feedstock," said Iacoponi. "It is available in unlimited quantities and therefore, able to satisfy the global needs of any brand at prices that provide compelling economics to convert from sugar.”
He added: “Our customers and pipeline include projects and SKUs across the entire food and beverage spectrum...The key advantages of this ingredient are purity, cost, sustainable supply and traceability.”
The GMO factor
While the yeast is genetically engineered, there is no yeast in the final product, as it converts sugar into Reb M and is then removed from the end product, explained Iacoponi, who said Amyris received a letter of no questions from the FDA regarding the sweetener's GRAS determination in December 2018.
The Purecane consumer brand likewise "does not contain any genetically modified organisms," and has received NSF Non-GMO certification, said Iacoponi. "We don't have any GMO material in our final products, because our fermentation process uses sustainably and ethically sourced, non-GMO sugarcane; the part of the process that is genetically engineered is the yeast which serves as a factory for the entire process. The yeast is then removed as part of our purification process.”
He added: "RealSweet sugarcane Reb M would not qualify as 'bioengineered' [under the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard, which only requires bioengineered labels if there is detectable modified genetic material]."
It would not, however, meet the Non GMO Project verified standard (section 9.3), because the yeast used to produce it is genetically engineered, even though none of the yeast is in the final sweetener: "The product meets some non-GMO definitions, but not others.”
According to Amyris, the global market for sweeteners is $10bn, of which up to $2bn is expected to be stevia-based.