Stevia looks set to undergo a boom in Europe

Stevia looks set to undergo a boom in Europe

Stevia, the plant-based intense sweetener, was approved for use in foods and beverages in the EU this month. Ben Cooper looks at what stevia has to offer and just why people are so excited about its potential in Europe.

"It's as close to sugar as the industry has ever come." This effusive remark from Cargill's Elizabeth Fay about her company's stevia-based table-top sweetener, Truvia, perhaps sums up why the food industry is so enthusiastic about stevia, the plant-based intense sweetener approved for use in food and beverages in the EU earlier this month.

As any sweetener is replacing an extremely appealing and useful ingredient in food, being 'like sugar' is the holy grail for manufacturers.

While there are times when marketing hyperbole is just that, with stevia the virtually unbounded enthusiasm is firmly grounded in reality.

To begin with, there is already a precedent suggesting stevia is starred for success in Europe, namely its progress in the US and France.

France granted interim approval for stevia in 2009, and research commissioned by sweetener manufacturer PureCircle showed that awareness among the general population had doubled to 47% by July 2011.

PureCircle marketing director Sue Bancroft adds that consumer awareness in the US rose from 35% to 62% in the two years after it was granted approval.

Fay believes similar growth in consumer awareness will now follow in the EU. Also, Fay says the approval of stevia for use in the US has revived a stagnating sweetener market.

This is a particularly salient point for Cargill, which has departed fromits established business model - focused primarily on commodity ingredients - in launching a consumer table-top sweetener brand called Truvia, which has already become the number two sugar substitute in the US.

While Fay says the table-top market in Europe "is going to be very important" for stevia products, clearly there is huge potential for stevia in food and drink manufacturing.

This month's decision by the European Commission is likely to precipitate the use of stevia-based products as the key ingredient in a wide range of zero- or lower-calorie food and drink formulations.

Derived from the Stevia Rebaudiana plant, stevia represents a group of extracts known as steviol glycosides which can be 300 to 400 times sweeter than sugar.

While the buzz around stevia suggests it is a new discovery, this is far from the case. In fact, stevia leaves have been used as a source of sweetness in South America for hundreds of years. Stevia's application in food manufacture is not even new. For about 30 years, it was widely used as a sweetener in Japan, until a change in Japanese law allowed the use of artificial sweeteners.

That change in Japan is somewhat ironic given that one of the prime reasons why stevia has come to prominence now is consumer demand for 'clean labels'.

Fay points to the "unmet global demand" for a natural zero-calorie sweetener. Consumers are looking for "more natural ingredients, for clean labels". She says that only recently has there been the "convergence" of a consumer need for both lower-calorie and naturally derived products.

Bancroft concurs: "There has been a real need in the market for a sweetener with natural origin."

Controversy over possible negative health impacts of products such asaspartame have certainly been a catalyst for consumer mistrust, but this is also arguably part of a broader cultural trend.

The pioneering work in artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, cyclamate and saccharin, was done at a time when scientific and technological solutions were overwhelmingly viewed as the only way to progress. Arguably, today a much more open view is taken towards the idea that some solutions may be found by looking back.

Stevia's natural credentials - and the fact that it has been consumed safely for many years - certainly make it a product perfectly in tune with that trend.

Interestingly, while it is plant-derived, for specific technical reasons under EU law Stevia cannot be termed as 'natural'.

However, Dr John Fry of Connect Consulting, an expert in sweetener development, believes stevia should be viewed to all intents and purposes as a natural product. "The idiosyncrasies of EU law mean it can't be called 'natural' even though it's extracted from a leaf and has been synthesised by a plant and not by man."

Fry continues: "These are molecules that have been synthesised by a plant and all that man has done to them is separate them from the other impurities also provided by the plant."

Manufacturers in the EU must instead say stevia is 'from nature' or 'plant-derived', which still gives it a significant selling-point with today's health-conscious consumers, and a major advantage over its artificial competitors.

Stevia's application as an additive for foods and beverages is also slightly compromised by what Fry believes are overly conservative limits on how much of the product can be included in food and drink formulations. Nevertheless, he believes stevia's claim to being a game-changer in the European sweetener market is entirely justified.

A further advantage of stevia is that it has a zero glycemic load so is suitable for diabetics. On the other hand, the ingredient has faced some criticism for leaving a rather bitter, liquorice-like after-taste, though manufacturers believe this can be overcome. The risk of after-taste is substantially reduced when stevia is blended with other sweeteners or sugar.

Indeed, another of Stevia's strengths is the comparative ease with which it can be combined with other ingredients in the production of zero- or low-calorie products. In particular, manufacturers have found that stevia and sucrose combinations work well. There is "great synergy with other sweeteners, including sugar, when you're formulating with stevia", says Fay.

While combinations with sugar will not produce a zero-calorie option, they can achieve a significant calorie reduction with a substantially enhanced taste performance in the all-important comparison with full-calorie products.

Stevia not only combines well with other sweeteners but also with bulking agents required when sugar is replaced with a high-intensity sweetener.

One of the key challenges with sugar replacements in food and drink is that sugar does not simply provide sweetness but also bulk. It performs specific functions in food manufacture, notably in baking, while also adding texture and 'mouthfeel'. High-intensity sweeteners, which may be hundreds of times sweeter than sugar, cannot perform this function.

For the bulking element to be replaced, high-intensity sweeteners have to be combined with some form of bulking agent, typically polydextrose or polyols.

Stevia has been found to combine very well with polyols. Moreover, the fact that it works well with erythritol, which is a naturally derived bulking substitute for sugar, could be particularly fruitful from the 'clean label' standpoint. In addition, erythritol has the highest digestive tolerance of all the polyols, resulting in lower risk of laxative effects, and is zero-calorie rather than low-calorie like the other polyols.

Unfortunately for European food manufacturers, no high-intensity sweetener, including stevia, is approved for use in the manufacture of baked goods in the EU, in contrast to the US, where stevia-based sweeteners may be used in products such as low-calorie cookies and muffins. Indeed, stevia's heat stability is considered an advantage and means stevia-based sweeteners will certainly be used in home baking in Europe as they are in the US.

In Europe, its chief manufacturing applications will be in products such as soft drinks, ice cream, yoghurts, confectionery and sugar-free gum and other products where the use of polyols is allowed.