This Hue Is for You
Stevia is the new kid on the block, and it’s moved in with a swagger. Finally freed of FDA fetters that prevented it from being sold as a sweetener, this natural product has asserted itself as a contender for the heavyweight (or should that be lightweight?) championship of the sweetener world.
Sourced from Stevia rebaudiana, stevia is a green-leafed herb in the Chrysanthemum family that grows wild in parts of Paraguay and Brazil. Stevia products contain glycosides, including up to 10% stevioside. This is the substance that imparts up to 400 times the sweetness of sugar while delivering virtually no calories.
Stevia also is green in the sense that much of it is organic and therefore represents a sustainable solution, as opposed to saccharin, which is sourced from petroleum.
Further, stevia means “green”—as in money—for processors and vendors alike. On May 3, Minneapolis, MN-based Cargill announced that its Truvia brand had surpassed both Sweet’N Low and Equal to become the number two sugar substitute in the country.
Cargill reported that Truvia, with nearly 13% of the category’s sales, has been in front of Merisant’s Equal since early 2010 and ahead of Cumberland’s Sweet’N Low since February of this year. McNeil Nutritionals’ Splenda, with approximately 60% of market share, leads the group.
Meanwhile, Truvia is not the only natural sugar substitute out there—not even the only stevia brand. Both Merisant’s PureVia, developed in partnership with PepsiCo, and McNeil’s Sun Crystals are vying for a piece of the stevia-sweetened “pie.” The overall market, says researcher Mintel, could go as high as $2 billion by the end of this year, up from a mere $21 million in 2008. In addition to the mass-market entries, there are numerous stevia sources with established natural products industry credentials.
PureCircle, another leading producer and marketer of high purity stevia products, recently released a new study on stevia awareness. “The study points to the rapid growth of stevia awareness and positive perception in the marketplace and identifies a stark contrast between stevia development and prior high intensity sweeteners,” the company said in a press release.
According to the study, as of May 2011, stevia awareness reached 62%, from 46% just a year earlier in the general U.S. population. This means stevia has now surpassed sucralose, which had 42% recognition, since its launch in 1998.
The study, based on a survey of consumers across the U.S. in May 2011, covered such areas as awareness, perception and purchase interest of branded and unbranded sweeteners in the U.S. market, including interest in their use across a broad set of food and beverage categories.
Commenting on the results, Jason Hecker, PureCircle’s vice president, Global Marketing & Innovation, said, “We had a hypothesis in early 2009 that the stevia market needed to be looked at very differently from earlier high intensity sweeteners. Traditionally, branded sweeteners have had much greater awareness and positive impression than their unbranded counterparts. Overall, the trends with stevia are the reverse. The data indicate that consumers find the unbranded message, in fact, to be the most natural. Perhaps this shouldn’t be completely surprising as the commonly used term for the sweetener is also the name of the plant.”
Of equal importance, the study found that with continued growth in awareness, stevia continues to rank at the top of the list with other natural ingredients like sugar and honey, for overall positive impression.
Considering that stevia has officially been a sweetener for only two years, its rise has been meteoric. The big push began in December 2008, when FDA relaxed its position that stevia when promoted as a sweetener was an unapproved food additive. Until then, stevia, although identical in composition to today’s product, could only be sold legally in the U.S. as a dietary supplement.
With this kind of foolishness eliminated, the way was cleared for willing companies to rush into the market. And they did. Cargill reports that Truvia is now an ingredient in more than 30 food and beverage products, including Glaceau Vitaminwater Zero (2010 sales: $93 million), Coca-Cola Sprite Green, YoCrunch 100 Calorie Packs, Kraft Crystal Light Pure (first-year sales for 2010: nearly $14 million) and Minute Maid Pomegranate Tea. And the list keeps growing, says Zanna McFerson, assistant vice president and business director. Recent Truvia-sweetened launches include a Smuckers line of no-added-sugar jams and jellies and Firefly Vodka’s Skinny Tea line.
Other ingredient suppliers have similar tales to tell. Cecilia McCollum, executive vice president of Blue California in Rancho Santa Margarita, CA, asserts, “We see a definite global trend in the direction of natural sweeteners.” She describes Good&Sweet, her company’s contribution to the Reb-A (stevia) category, as having 99% purity, while delivering great taste and “the most consistent quality batch after batch in the market.” She adds, “Consumers, worldwide, do not mind paying a premium price for premium products.”
Brent Laffey is global product manager for Premium Ingredients International of Carol Stream, IL, the U.S. distributor for PureCircle, the Malaysia-based concern that bills itself as “the world’s leading producer of high purity stevia ingredients for the global food and beverage industry.” He says, “Not only are consumers looking for healthier, more functional ingredients, but the movement toward weight loss and combating obesity is also in the forefront of trends.
“We’re now receiving more inquiries than ever for stevia, specifically the PureCircle products we carry,” Mr. Laffey said. “These products are known for guaranteed consistent quality, as PureCircle is one of the few stevia manufacturers that is actively producing from the beginning stages of the leaf plant.”
He went on to say that SG95, a new PureCircle stevia byproduct, is “much lower in cost than most Reb-A” and is also the only version approved by FDA for food and beverage use.
Brandon Olson, the company’s director of research and development, added, “We’re finding that with PureCircle stevia glycoside SG95 we can replace up to 50% of the sugar in a formula without noticeable detection.”
Combining different types of sweeteners in a single product can be the answer to some questions about stevia, said Chris Holland, vice president of sales and marketing for Irvine, CA-based BGG North America, Inc., an affiliate of China’s Beijing Gingko Group. According to Mr. Holland, “Stevia certainly has taste issues that need to be overcome, and consumer products manufacturers are moving along cautiously as they try to balance taste, cost and consumer demand.”
“We recently launched a product line called Magvia, a blend of our stevia extract and monoammonium glycyrrhizinate (MAG), which is derived from licorice. It provides a nice, well-rounded sweet taste more similar to sugar than either stevia or MAG by itself. We expect demand for Magvia to grow as formulators struggle to mask the bitter aftertaste of stevia,” Mr. Holland added.
The BGG executive also opines that, despite stevia’s strong growth, the market response apparently has been slower than was predicted. “I believe stevia production has far outpaced demand and the large producers that invested heavily in facilities and equipment are sitting on a lot of product and idle capacity,” he commented.
One issue has been a complaint about stevia’s supposed “poor water solubility for beverage applications.” Given these cautions, Mr. Holland says that BGG is taking “a more focused, niche market approach with our organic certified product and a new water-soluble product.”
Besides stevia, there are plenty of other natural sweeteners for manufacturers, retailers and—ultimately—consumers to choose from.
Lathrop, CA-based California Natural Products markets rice syrups and solids made in the U.S. since 1985. According to John Ashby, general manager—Ingredients, these “begin with rice, organic compatible enzymes and water.” Once insoluble fiber and certain other characteristics are screened out, the remaining product still contains many of the nutrients available in the rice, as well as such functional attributes as binding, flavor masking, water control, humectancy and high emulsification capacity. “These are not just empty carbohydrate calories,” Mr. Ashby said.
Meanwhile, the company is not oblivious to the marketing magnetism of stevia. One of its newest products is Ricevia, which combines all of the advantages of rice syrups with the zero-glycemic sweetening power of stevia. Moreover, says Ashby, the rice syrup helps mask “the edges of the flavor of the stevia.”
Ron Udell, president/CEO of Los Angeles, CA-based Kenko International, says his company’s two most important sweetening ingredients are xylitol and mannitol. The special attribute of xylitol is that, in addition to providing low-calorie sweetness, it also qualifies for a claim that it may help prevent tooth decay. According to Mr. Udell, the anti-caries activity is unique to xylitol and sets it apart from all other sugar alternatives on the market. Moreover, he says, “Xylitol’s flavor profile leans to coolness, which makes it ideal for use in toothpaste and mint candies.”
Mr. Udell added, “Mannitol has a milder flavor than high-intensity sweeteners like stevia. Therefore, it is useful in coatings, where it can smooth out the aftertaste sometimes left by the stronger-flavored options.” Another benefit of mannitol, he says, is that it may be used as a carrier to transport vitamins, minerals and other actives.
The Kenko executive is not unmindful of the big splash being made by stevia, but believes that it will never entirely supplant established natural sweeteners like xylitol. He notes that products like this “continue to drive today’s market. Manufacturers are accustomed to working with it, they trust it completely, and they are happy with the pricing.”
While Mr. Udell recognizes that stevia has a great future, he also believes that, currently, “There are more suppliers offering it than there are finished product manufacturers prepared to use it in great volume.”
Although it is not appropriate for all applications, fruit juice is another popular natural sweetener. Many varieties can be used, but strong flavor notes may interfere with the desired taste of the product that is being sweetened.
Dave Tuchler, vice president of global marketing, innovation and commercial development for Tate & Lyle in Decatur, IL, says, “Our newest sweetening solution, PureFruit Monk Fruit Extract, offers consumers a great-tasting, zero-calorie, high potency sweetener that is made from fruit. The ‘naturally sweetened with fruit extracts’ claim can be used on the front label of foods and beverages and quickly lets consumers know they are purchasing a product containing a sweetener derived from fruit.”
According to Tuchler, nine out of 10 respondents to a recent study conducted by Tate & Lyle found the claim “naturally sweetened” to be appealing. He says Tate & Lyle obtains its monk fruit (also known as lo han guo) from BioVittoria, a New Zealand-based cultivator with U.S. offices in Libertyville, IL.
He also says there are added benefits when using monk fruit: “[It] is extremely heat-stable, water-soluble and will not degrade on the shelf. In addition to applicability in nutraceuticals, we expect the benefits of PureFruit to be relevant to the beverage, dairy, cereal, confectionery and bakery categories to help lower sugar and reduce calories while delivering a great taste consumers expect.”
Beet sugar is at the heart of Isomalt, Palatinose and galenIQ, all available from Mannheim, Germany’s BENEO-Palatinit. The company, which has a U.S. subsidiary in Morris Plains, NJ, is part of the BENEO Group, which also includes Belgium-based BENEO-Orafti, producing inulin and oligofructose primarily from chicory root, and BENEO-Remy, also of Belgium, which makes and markets rice derivatives, rice concentrates and rice powders.
When BENEO announced a 20% increase on global list prices of Isomalt in June, Jens Böhm, commercial managing director of Palatinit, explained that it was the first price rise for the product in years, and was necessary to maintain high quality standards and to secure the supply chain. Böhm added that monitoring of trends showed “consumers and markets are prepared to accept increased price levels. Isomalt’s proven benefits, such as being kind to teeth, low in calories and low glycemic … give our customers the competitive edge to differentiate their products and brands from the rest.”
A Matter of Taste
One point on which virtually all sources agree is that the number one requirement of any sugar alternative must be that it tastes good. While this is, admittedly, an area in which objective criteria sometimes yield to subjective response, most observers acknowledge the presence of subtle to not-so-subtle unwanted taste sensations in many sweetening products.
The mission of Cincinnati, OH-based WILD Flavors, Inc. is to eliminate this problem. Jessica Jones-Dille, senior manager, industry trends and market research, says, “[We offer] taste modification systems that work in concert with stevia or other natural low calorie sweeteners, allowing broader use range and superior taste in finished products.”
The company’s website reports that “Flavor Creation Teams” have introduced numerous flavor profiles and libraries from which customers can choose, including FTNF (From the Name Fruit), New Generation Meat Flavors, Sweet 16, ethnic lines, as well as natural and organic-compliant flavor libraries. In addition, customers have the option of working with WILD “flavorists” to create custom blends.
WILD also offers proprietary Resolver Technology, utilizing a natural flavor extract, for helping with the off-notes from functional ingredients. The WILD Resolver overcomes undesirable taste components by selectively influencing the tongue’s taste buds. To experience a taste sensation a molecule has to fit exactly onto a relevant receptor on the tongue. The WILD Resolver blocks the receptor by attaching itself to the receptor but does not trigger the taste sensation.
Recently, the company has been focusing on taste modification solutions that will substitute “a clean, sweet taste profile [for] the often bitter, licorice flavor of stevia.” In a May 17 press release, WILD announced a collaboration with New Jersey’s Domino Sugar and China’s Sunwin International to provide “sweeteners made from all natural products such as cane sugar, rice, malt and stevia in addition to sweetening systems that can include both natural and artificial sweeteners plus sophisticated flavor modifiers.”
About the author: New Jersey-based freelance writer Alan Richman is the former editor/associate publisher of Whole Foods Magazine and a regular contributor to Nutraceuticals World. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.