Stevia: Seeking answers on taste, supply and cost

by Jeff Gelski
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Concerns over supply and consumer taste acceptance still linger for stevia-based sweeteners, but count Hank Cardello, a Diet Coke brand manager in the 1980s, as a fan. Mr. Cardello, chief executive officer of the advisory company 27 Degrees North, said he sees parallels between the introduction of Rebaudioside A, an all-natural zero-calorie sweetener extracted from the stevia plant, and the introduction of aspartame, which is used in the production of NutraSweet.

"I think it could revolutionize the business the same way aspartame did for diet drinks in the early 1980s," he said.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration in December said it had no objections to the use of Rebaudioside A in foods and beverages. Recently launched beverages such as Sprite Green and Vitaminwater 10may reveal whether U.S. consumers will accept the taste of stevia-based sweeteners.

Speakers took a more cautious approach to stevia than Mr. Cardello during a May 5 Beverage Marketing Corp. webinar. Some in the beverage industry view stevia-based sweeteners with guarded optimism, but it’s too early to tell whether the sweeteners will succeed, said Gary Hemphill, senior vice-president of the Beverage Marketing Corp.

Michael Bellas, chairman and c.e.o., added, "It may be awhile. It’s really a question of taste."

Flavor companies have jumped at the chance to offer solutions to any taste problems associated with stevia extracts (see story on Page 56). Some consumers apparently already like the taste of one natural cola sweetened with stevia extracts. Seattle-based Zevia reported in April that SPINS ranked its Zevia beverage as the sales leader among colas, diet beverages and canned beverages in the natural channel for the 12 weeks ended Feb. 21.

The natural angle gives stevia-based sweeteners perhaps their biggest marketing boost, said Mr. Cardello, also author of the book "Stuffed, an insider’s look at who’s (really) making America fat." Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame confuse parents and make them wonder whether they should give their children diet soft drinks, he said.

"You have a huge marketing advantage by saying you’re natural," he said. "Naturally zero calories, that’s pretty powerful in today’s environment."

PureCircle, which has a U.S. office in Florham Park, N.J., and GLG Life Tech Corp., Vancouver, B.C., are two companies tackling the supply issue of stevia-based sweeteners. Rebaudioside A is now competitive with sugar for global brands with global volume, said Dorn Wenninger, corporate vice-president of the global supply chain for PureCircle, when he spoke at Stevia World earlier this month in Shanghai.

"At PureCircle, we have learned from other sweeteners that the key to a truly global success is to offer our sweetener — Reb A, an all-natural alternative to sugar with zero calories — at a fully competitive price at the earliest opportunity," he said.

PureCircle seeks to make its Rebaudioside A, which is 200 to 400 times sweeter than sugar, cheaper than sugar in relation to sweetness equivalent, said Dr. Sidd Purkayastha, Ph.D., technical director, North America, for PureCircle. To head in that direction, PureCircle will increase its extraction capacity 75% in China this year. The company plans to begin harvesting new stevia plants in Kenya and Paraguay either late this year or early in 2010. PureCircle also is expanding a refinery in Malaysia that had an annual production capacity of 1,000 tonnes at the beginning of this year.

"We foresee the price will be down at least 60% in two to three years," Mr. Purkayastha said.

PureCircle currently has contracts with Cargill, PepsiCo, Inc. and Whole Earth Sweetener Co. for the supply of Rebaudioside A.

New facilities for GLG Life Tech came online earlier this year in the cities of Mingguang and Dongtai in The People’s Republic of China. The company’s monthly production of high-grade stevia extract has increased to 40 tonnes from 10 tonnes in 2008. GLG Life Tech expects 2009 revenues of C$50 million ($43.9 million) to C$60 million ($52.7 million), which compares with C$9.9 million in 2008.

GLG Life Tech in May said it has partnered with Zevia to provide rebiana for that company’s natural soft drink products. GLG Life Tech also has received an initial order of $40.5 million from Cargill for the delivery of high-grade stevia extracts beginning in October.

GLG Life Tech has noticed a price increase for stevia extracts from historical levels over the past year, said Brian Meadows, chief financial officer, in a May 15 earnings conference call. As GLG Life Tech is able to get its costs lower, the company will pass the savings on to customers, he said.

"We expect some downward pressure on prices over the coming years," Mr. Meadows said. "We’re still at the early stages of this growth curve."


Flavor systems assist new sweeteners

The emergence of stevia-based sweeteners in the U.S. food and beverage industry has led to a rush of ingredient products designed to complement the new sweeteners, either through enhancing their sweetness or reducing their unwanted aftertaste. Here are some of the launches:


Cargill has developed flavor systems for rebiana, a sweetener extracted from the stevia plant. The systems may work in cereal, yogurt, ice cream, confectionery and beverage applications such as carbonated soft drinks and flavored water. A patented technology simultaneously measures comprehensive cellular-level taste responses and uses them for developing new flavor systems.


Givaudan Flavours, Dubendorf, Switzerland, has identified and applied for patents related to its discovery of the bitter taste receptor triggered by Rebaudioside A, which is extracted from the stevia plant. Understanding how Rebaudioside A activates bitterness in the mouth has enabled Givaudan to discover and develop flavor ingredients that specifically block this mechanism.


Mag-nifique for Stevia, a new taste modifier, enhances sweetness and reduces the lingering aftertaste caused by stevia, according to Wixon, Inc., St. Francis, Wis. Food processors and snack companies may manage costs by using less stevia thanks to the synergistic effect of Mag-nifique for Stevia. The taste modifier has no impact on a product’s texture, nutritional panel, chemical behavior or heat stability. It does not break down or alter its flavor in cooking, freezing or shelf life applications.


The Oh! So Sweet rebiana/citrus extract blend may be as much as 1,000 times as sweet as sucrose since the citrus extract has a synergistic effect on rebiana and also may mask any unwanted aftertaste of rebiana, according to Flavex Food Ingredients, a division of The Arnhem Group, and based in Cranford, N.J. In powder form, the natural sweetener blend is off white to light beige in color, odorless and about 1,000 times as sweet as sucrose.

In liquid form, the blend is pale to light amber in color, virtually odorless and about 250 times as sweet as sucrose. The Oh! So Sweet rebiana/citrus extract blend may cost 13c per gallon of beverage based on sweetening 1 gallon of beverage to equivalent of 6% sugar usage, which compares to 32c for stevia.


Wild Flavors Inc., Erlanger, Ky., has added OnlySweet stevia extracts and OnlySweet stevia blends to the company’s portfolio of taste modification technologies. The systems address mouthfeel, masking, sweet enhancement and blocking of bitterness in foods and beverages containing stevia extracts.


Smoothenol, a new natural technology system, masks undesirable off-notes and unwanted aftertaste in beverages that may occur when non-nutritive sweeteners such as the Rebaudioside A stevia extract are used, according to Sensient Flavors L.L.C., Indianapolis. Smoothenol modifies the consumer sensory perception to eliminate bitter off-notes and astringency.


Comax Flavors, Melville, N.Y., has added a stevia-masking flavor to its line of Special Effects flavors. The product overcomes bitterness caused by stevia and also deflects the lingering or clinging sweetness that interferes with the acceptability of the finished product, said Catherine M. Armstrong, vice-president of marketing for Comax Flavors.


Symrise now offers flavor solutions for products sweetened with stevia extracts as part of its SymLife Mask portfolio. Symrise’s new flavorings based on natural patented ingredients and flavor modifiers improve a product’s taste by masking undesired off-flavors and enhancing additional stevia sweetening properties. FBNProducts with stevia extracts may require bulking agents

Like all high-intensity sweeteners, stevia extracts do not act as bulking agents when replacing sugar in products. While food formulators will need to add bulking agents in reduced-sugar products, the amount and the kind of agent will depend on application.

For example, in reduced-sugar confectionery items, suggested bulk sugar replacers to be used with the stevia extract Rebaudioside A include isomalt, maltitol, lactitol, polydextrose, soluble fibers, maltodextrins and corn syrup solids, said Sidd Purkayastha, Ph.D., technical director, North America, for PureCircle.

Choosing a natural bulking agent may be a good idea if food companies are using stevia extracts to promote a natural product. Isomalt is naturally derived from beet sugar and may act as a 1:1 bulk sugar replacer that may provide sweetness, bulk and texture to a product, said Debra Bryant, director of business development and technical services for Beneo-Palatinit, Inc., Morris Plains, N.J. Isomalt may be used to achieve sugar reductions of up to 30% in baked foods, cereals and ice cream, she said.

"Isomalt can easily be combined with sugars, other polyols and even high-intensity sweeteners to reach the desired sweetness," she said. "That includes the high-intensity sweetener stevia.

"Isomalt tastes like sugar. Its mild and natural sweetness enhances fine and subtle flavors. In addition, unlike other polyols, it has no cooling effect. Moreover, it can mask the aftertaste occasionally left by some high-intensity sweeteners."

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