Seeking a unified voice

by Jeff Gelski
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ATLANTA — It may start with the ingredient label. Stevia-based sweeteners currently are listed as Reb A, rebiana, stevia and stevia extract on various labels, said James Kempland, vice-president of marketing for GLG Life Tech Corp., Vancouver, B.C. In contrast, sugar reads “sugar” on the ingredient label.

“It doesn’t say beet sugar,” Mr. Kempland said.

He said an international stevia association may bring industry members together to choose one word to best describe stevia-based sweeteners on ingredient labels. That simplification may be one example of how a potential association might focus on consumer-based messaging.

“We need to speak with one voice to maximize the investment and minimize the confusion,” Mr. Kempland said at Stevia World Americas, which took place Feb. 25-26 in Atlanta and attracted about 150 industry members from 24 countries.

GLG Life Tech and PureCircle, both global suppliers of stevia-based sweeteners, were sponsors of Stevia World Americas.

“PureCircle had a vision 10 years ago to build stevia as a mainstream sweetener for the food and beverage industry,” said Jason Hecker, group marketing director for PureCircle Ltd., Oak Brook, Ill. “We continue to be supportive of initiatives that further establish it as the natural sweetening ingredient of choice among customers based on its high quality standards, supply chain reliability and consumer acceptance.”

Consumers need to be educated and made aware of stevia-based sweeteners, said Michael Movitz, vice-president of business development for SPINS Inc. He pointed to a 2009 report from Mintel and SPINS on stevia and other natural sweeteners that showed 20% of respondents had heard of stevia but had not tried it.

Much talk has focused on avoiding unwanted aftertaste in products sweetened with stevia, but avoiding multiple messages that confuse consumers may prove important, too. Differing opinions on the natural, zero-calorie, high-intensity sweeteners have come from across the globe since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said in December 2008 that it had no objections to the use of specific stevia extracts in foods and beverages.

Varied forms of the leaf will exist, Mr. Kempland said. That’s true especially since stevia plants are grown on several continents. Varied forms of process methodology will exist, too, he said. Whether or not to use methanol or ethanol as a processing aid in extraction techniques is one debate. The feasibility of switching to automated harvests is another.

Still, Mr. Kempland said promoters and suppliers of stevia-based sweeteners need to look beyond individual differences, create a singular message and build awareness among consumers while also educating them,

“There are certain things under way currently,” he said of a potential stevia association.

Taste challenge raises issues of extracting, enhancing

ATLANTA — Taste stands as one of the biggest obstacles to stevia-based sweeteners gaining mainstream acceptance in foods and beverages. During Stevia World Americas Feb. 25-26 in Atlanta, extracting the sweetest parts of the stevia leaf was discussed as one way of avoiding any bitter or lingering aftertaste. Combining flavor enhancers/taste modifiers with stevia-based sweeteners was another.

Not only may taste modifiers improve a high-grade stevia extract to have a cleaner taste, less lingering sweet aftertaste and less bitterness, they also may improve a lower quality of stevia extract to achieve a cost-effective formulation, said Mariano Gascon, vice-president of research and development for Wixon Inc. The company, based in St. Francis, Wis., offers Mag-Nifique for Stevia.

Several companies promote a percentage of 97% or greater of Rebaudioside A (Reb A), the sweetest part of the stevia leaf, in their sweeteners.

How a company reaches a high percentage of Reb A may affect consumers’ outlook, said James A. May, president and chief executive officer of Wisdom Natural Brands, Gilbert, Ariz., which offers stevia-based SweetLeaf Sweeteners. Stevia-based sweeteners

often are promoted as natural, but using methanol or ethanol as a processing aid to extract the Reb A may not sound so natural to consumers, he said.

“Consumers want purity, and that is what we as an industry must give them,” Mr. May said.

Mr. May, who has worked with the stevia plant since the early 1980s, said he disagreed with the theory that Reb A is the Holy Grail of sweeteners. While Reb A may be a sweet steviol glycoside inside the stevia leaf, other steviol glycosides, such as steviosides, may add to the overall taste of the sweeteners, he said.

“It is the stevia plant itself that is the Holy Grail of sweeteners,” he said.

Suppliers seek to provide uniformity, adequate volume

ATLANTA — Companies require a uniform and adequate supply of an ingredient for use in their branded food and beverage products. As potential ingredients, stevia-based sweeteners look to be no exception. According to speakers at Stevia World Americas Feb. 25-26 in Atlanta, efforts are under way to increase the acreage of stevia plants, produce stevia plants that are more uniform with similar sweetness attributes, and to grow them in a sustainable manner.

Creating a consistent supply will prove challenging. The same varieties of stevia plants grown in different ecosystems perform differently, said Javier Sainz, director of Prodalysa Ltda. in Chile. Also, different varieties grown in the same ecosystems perform differently, and single ecosystems change within the year, he said.

Shivraj Bhosale, managing director of Sunfruits Ltd. in India, said stevia plants grown in tropical climates may have more growing seasons per year and more hours of sunlight per day. Different stevia plant varieties also may have different percentages of Rebaudioside A, the sweetest part of the stevia leaf. For example 45 kilograms (about 100 lbs) of stevia leaves may be needed to achieve 1 kilogram (2.2 lbs) of Rebaudioside A.

Sichuan Feng Gu Agriculture Development Co. operates in China, the world’s largest producer of stevia plants. While the company plans to cultivate 5,000 hectares (12,000 acres) of stevia plants in 2010, it wants to reach 50,000 hectares (120,000 acres) within five years.

The Chinese government wants to raise the standard of living in the countryside, and one step may involve paying farmers better for their crops, said David Bishop, executive vice-president of international affairs for GLG Life Tech Corp., Vancouver, B.C. For its stevia supply, GLG Life Tech contracts with Chinese farmers on about 16,000 hectares (40,000 acres), which represents more than 150,000 farmers on small plots of land.

PureCircle, Sweet Green Fields and Corn Products International are some other companies with stevia ties to China.

Farmers in India have grown stevia plants on small land holdings of 6,000 to 7,000 square feet, Mr. Bhosale said. The high number of stevia growers leads to an indifferent quality of leaves and an inconsistency in supply, he said.

Large-scale cultivation in tropical and sub-tropical regions may be needed for commercial stevia cultivation, he said. His company has developed a 50-acre modern model farm near Mumbai, India.

Imperio Guarania SA works with farmers in Paraguay, said Sergio Chase, director general. At community meetings the company tries to find at least 200 hectares (500 acres) of potential land for growing stevia in that community. An agricultural engineer for Imperio Guarania then works with farmers to grow the plants in the same manner.

Farmers in Paraguay have a yearly income of about $1,300 through traditional farming of such products as cotton, maize, beans, sesame, tapioca, soy, tobacco and sugar cane. Planting stevia may increase their yearly income by about 30%, Mr. Chase said.

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