“Consumer concerns regarding obesity and the growing demand for all-natural products bode well for Reb A to quickly gain market share,” said Rabobank Food & Agribusiness Research and Advisory executive director Stephen Rannekleiv. ”However, while success seems imminent, and we expect annual U.S. sales of Reb A to reach approximately $700 million within five years, numerous hurdles must still be overcome.”
While the market potential for stevia in the U.S. appears attractive, there are challenges to overcome. Reb A has been shown to have a similar taste to sugar, but individual tastes can vary substantially, and some consumers still claim to detect a bitter or licorice aftertaste that they find objectionable. Additionally, Reb A alone does not provide enough sweetness for some soft drinks, but cannot be combined with other non-caloric sweeteners to reach full sweetness while maintaining the all-natural claim.
To get beyond this obstacle, Mr. Rannekleiv said, “most beverage companies appear to be developing formulas that combine Reb A with sugar, which helps to mask any residual aftertaste and allows for a low-calorie, non-caloric option.”
In addition to taste, Reb A pricing creates an additional hurdle. As demand is still being established and production lacks efficiencies of scale, Reb A costs more than other mainstream sweeteners.
One Reb A refiner has offered to lower the price equivalent to that of the cost level of sugar for use in mainstream beverages. While this would likely create greater demand for Reb A, it will still be more expensive than high fructose corn syrup in the U.S., and that cost will have to be passed on to consumers.
Price barriers could potentially become further complicated in the short term once the European Union (EU) approves Reb A for use as a food ingredient, which appears imminent. “If new product introductions and consumer acceptance in the EU outpace the industry’s ability to increase stevia acreage, it could place additional upward pressure on prices in the short term,” said Mr. Rannekleiv. “However, in the longer term, increased demand for Reb A would be an overall positive for the industry, as it would allow for increased scale and greater efficiencies in extraction and refining.”
Given that Reb A is likely to demand a significant increase in stevia acreage in a relatively short time and that it commands strong pricing, stevia production stands to become a very attractive option for agricultural producers. To date, nearly all of the production is managed by very small farmers, but a number of larger producers around the world are exploring opportunities and making plans for larger scale production.
The potential market for Reb A in the U.S. appears to be quite considerable. In 2008, the global high intensity sweetener market was valued at approximately $1.3 billion, with the U.S. accounting for approximately 35% ($455 million). Each year, the U.S. consumes more than 5 million metric tons sugar equivalent of high intensity sweeteners.