Marketing monk fruit

by Jeff Gelski
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A high-intensity sweetener extracted from a fruit stands poised to join a natural trend ignited in recent years by the development of products featuring stevia. Under a five-year strategic partnership, BioVittoria, Inc., Hamilton, New Zealand, has awarded Tate & Lyle, P.L.C., London, exclusive global marketing and distribution rights to BioVittoria’s monk fruit extract.

The natural, calorie-free sweetener may be formulated into a variety of products, including beverages, dairy, cereal, confectionery and baked foods. Tate & Lyle will market the products in the United States under the Purefruit brand name and support the line of Purefruit products with sales, research, marketing and product development. Tate & Lyle has Purefruit available in markets where it has received regulatory approval, which includes the United States, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, said Karl Kramer, based in Decatur, Ill., and president of innovation and commercial development for Tate & Lyle.

Purefruit offers the four marketing advantages of taste, made from fruit, 0 calories and natural, he said.

U.S. sales of products promoted for natural benefits reached $22.6 billion for the 52 weeks ended March 19, 2011, which marked an 8% increase from $20.9 billion in the previous 52-week period, according to New York-based The Nielsen Co. Sales covered all U.S. supermarkets.

High-intensity sweeteners extracted from stevia plants boosted the natural category after the Food and Drug Administration in 2008 said it had no objection to the Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) status for the use of specific stevia extracts in foods and beverages. Sales of products promoted for stevia content reached $405.7 million for the 52 weeks ended March 19, 2011, which marked a 61% increase from $252.5 million in the previous 52-week period.

A survey conducted by Tate & Lyle showed a strong liking for natural claims. Among the 3,100 respondents, 94% found the “all natural” claim either “very appealing” or “fairly appealing.” The “all natural claim” was followed by “naturally sweetened” (92% found the claim either “very appealing” or “fairly appealing”), “sweetened with natural ingredients” (90%), “25% fewer calories” (78%) and “25% reduced sugar” (77%).

Many people soon may hear about the natural traits of monk fruit, also known as luo han guo. Buddhist monks began growing monk fruit in China centuries ago, according to BioVittoria. Its pulp is steeped into hot water to release a sweetening ingredient about 200 times sweeter than sugar. The F.D.A. in 2010 issued a letter saying it had no objection to the GRAS status of the use of BioVittoria’s monk fruit as a sweetener and flavor enhancer in foods and beverages.

Under the agreement with Tate & Lyle, BioVittoria will continue to manage the monk fruit extract supply chain. BioVitorria produces seedlings from its patented plant varieties and controls the supply chain from seedling through finished product.

Monk fruit mainly is grown in southern China, Mr. Kramer said. The crop is scalable and expansion plans are in place if demand requires it, he said.

Stevia supply continues to grow as well. PureCircle Ltd. has invested $300 million in its supply chain, said Jason Hecker, vice-president of global marketing for PureCircle, which has offices in Oak Brook, Ill., Switzerland and Malaysia. Since the company is growing stevia plants in 16 different countries on four different continents, supply is scalable.

“For us it absolutely is,” Mr. Hecker said.

While the F.D.A. already has approved use of stevia extracts as an ingredient in foods and beverages, PureCircle expects Europe to approve its use later this year.

Minneapolis-based Cargill reported the Truvia brand of stevia-based sweeteners ranks as the No. 2 sugar substitute in the United States with nearly a 13% share at retail within the sugar substitute category. The company cited Nielsen figures for sales covering the four weeks ended March 19. Cargill offers Truvia rebiana for use as an ingredient in foods and beverages.

“Many of the challenges food and beverage manufacturers currently face is with regards to making healthier products,” said Ralf Loeffelholz, Truvia commercial manager for Cargill Health & Nutrition. “The key is to look at the entire formulation to create cost-neutral products using a natural, high-intensity sweetener like Truvia rebiana.”

Lawsuit challenges HFCS advertising campaign

LOS ANGELES — A lawsuit filed in a U.S. district court in Los Angeles claims a marketing campaign for high-fructose corn syrup is false and misleading in stating that HFCS is corn sugar. The lawsuit filed by Western Sugar Cooperative in Colorado, Michigan Sugar Co. and C&H Sugar Co. cites Internet advertising, exhibitions at professional organizations, television commercials, print advertisements and the web site www.sweetsurprise.com.

“We stand by the message in our ads and the science behind it,” said Audrae Erickson, president of the Washington-based Corn Refiners Association, a defendant in the case. Other defendants include Archer Daniels Midland Co., Cargill, Corn Products International, Inc., Penford Products Co., Roquette America, Inc., and Tate & Lyle Ingredients Americas, Inc.

The Corn Refiners Association on Sept. 14, 2010, petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to allow manufacturers the option of using “corn sugar” as an alternative name for HFCS. The F.D.A. as of April 28 had not ruled on the petition.

“Simply, this lawsuit is without merit, and we will vigorously defend our right to petition the F.D.A. to clear up consumer confusion about the name,” Ms. Erickson said.

The sugar companies in the lawsuit argue “corn sugar” already is a name approved by the F.D.A. for a sweetener made from corn starch.

“Impatient for this (F.D.A. petition) approval, the C.R.A. and several of the defendants have already jumped the gun, calling HFCS ‘corn sugar’ in advertising and in pricing sheets for their food ingredient customers,” the lawsuit said.

The sugar companies said the marketing campaign aims to change consumer perception of HFCS by equating it with sugar, especially after some food and beverage companies have substituted sugar for HFCS in their products because of consumer perception of HFCS.

“This suit is about false advertising, pure and simple,” said Inder Mathur, president and chief executive officer of Western Sugar Cooperative. “If consumers are concerned about your product, then you should improve it or explain its benefits, not try to deceive people about its name or distort scientific facts.”

The sugar producers seek an injunction to end the advertising campaign and also seek damages, including compensation for corrective advertising.

The lawsuit also claims scientific studies demonstrate molecular differences between HFCS and sugar and differences in how the human body processes them. The C.R.A. said the American Dietetic Association and the Center for Science in the Public Interest both have said HFCS and sugar are nutritionally and metabolically equivalent.

The lawsuit also claims HFCS is not a natural product and cannot be extracted simply from an ear of corn. The F.D.A., in a letter sent to the C.R.A. in 2008, said it would not object to the use of the term “natural” on a product containing HFCS in which the HFCS is manufactured under a common practice using a specific enzyme.

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