Blog: Dean BestStevia gives visitors to Fi Europe plenty to chew over

Dean Best | 30 November 2011

Stevia was one of the key topics that appeared to be at the forefront of exhibitors' minds as just-food toured this year's Food Ingredients Europe trade show.

The event, held every two years, is taking place at the sprawling Paris Nord Villepinte exhibition centre, north of the French capital. And, after a less than auspicious start to proceedings in which the computer systems for press badges failed (adding to the long, long queues for visitor passes) and in which the power in the press room went down, the first day at the event yesterday (29 November) was full of fascinating insights from some of the world's largest food ingredient makers.

Unsurprisingly, just three weeks after it won EU approval, intense sweetener stevia was one of the buzzwords (before just-food had even taken a seat at the Cargill stand for a scheduled interview when the show opened, representatives of the US food giant were fielding requests about the product).

Cargill and, later in the day, rival stevia supplier PureCircle both talked about the potential for stevia in food. Until now, the majority of products launched containing stevia have been drinks but both companies believe more food products, including ice cream, yoghurts and even salad dressings, will be introduced that include the zero-calorie, natural sweetener.

There is always some scepticism around the launch of any product or ingredient but stevia seems to have captured the imagination of the industry and is being covered by not just the trade press but by mainstream publications, including Le Monde, which ran a feature discussing the ingredient yesterday.

Both companies were upbeat about the ingredient's potential. PureCircle's global director of marketing and innovation, Jason Hecker, insisted there are a number of consumer trends that would encourage the wider use of stevia. "It's not a [simply] discussion about a zero-calorie ingredient. It's a discussion about obesity, about commodities, about health and wellness and natural. Those are much bigger contexts," he said.

And Hecker also claimed stevia could have a positive impact on a key consideration for food manufacturers - cost.

"Those dynamics are all business propositions [but] we can just as easily have a conversation with a customer about how some of the ingredients in our portfolio can reduce the cost of the formulations in their products. Forget about natural, sustainability and obesity. You can look at this from the perspective of commodity diversification. There are so many propositions to work with. It's really compelling."

As just-food has reported on its pages in the past, there have been concerns around the after-taste of products using the ingredient and, although both Cargill and PureCircle acknowledged there had been those concerns, they pointed to the successful application of their ingredients in products owned by companies from Coca-Cola Co. and Orangina Schweppes to Kraft Foods and PepsiCo.

"Taste is king," Hecker said. "It's not in our interest for there to be bad-tasting products. Early on, there was a lot of touting of [stevia glycoside] reb-A as being the holy grail. We think of stevia as a little bit more of a spice than a sweetener. It's about the total matrix of your application. You need to do application work. You don't just take out sugar, put this in and you're done. A lot of that work has been done. The evidence is not me talking or Cargill talking, it's [PepsiCo beverage brand] SoBe Lifewater as a multi-hundred million dollar business." 

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