Stevia has been widely used – with some success – in carbonated soft drinks and table-top sweeteners containing the ingredient continue to be launched. However, suppliers are increasingly looking at how to use the sweetener in food, particularly categories like dairy and confectionery. Jonathan Thomas reports.
The use of stevia in drinks is higher than in food but, according to leading industry suppliers such as Cargill, stevia-based sweeteners have a wide range of potential applications within foods, although it remains to be seen if usage keeps pace with some of the initial projections.
Some of the more noteworthy sectors of the food industry considered to have significant potential for stevia-based sweeteners include dairy foods (e.g. ice cream, yoghurt and flavoured milks), as well as breakfast cereals, cereal bars and certain types of confectionery and sweet bakery goods. This is chiefly because it is sectors such as these in which food manufacturers have been actively seeking to reduce sugar content.
Within the dairy industry, Cargill has been working with a number of US-based suppliers to develop products naturally sweetened with its Truvia brand. As a result, stevia-sweetened products have begun to emerge within sectors such as yoghurt and ice cream over the last few years. Major examples include the following:
January 2010 – Breyers Yogurt Company launched YoCrunch 100 Calorie Packs, which are sweetened with Truvia. This represented the US’s first low-fat yoghurt made with a stevia-based sweetener.
March 2011 – Iskream launched a new low-fat ice cream sweetened with Truvia. Launched in flavours such as Vanilla and Berry Good, the new ice cream was the first of its kind in the US market.
Stevia-based sweeteners have also featured within the US market for dairy alternatives. During 2010, WhiteWave Foods (a subsidiary of dairy giant Dean Foods) extended its Silk range of soya milks with a new chocolate version sweetened with reb A.
Elsewhere in the food industry, Smartfoods of New Zealand (owner of the Vogel’s brand) launched muesli-style breakfast cereals sweetened with stevia extracts in 2010, a first for the country. Meanwhile, sugar-free products containing stevia are now sold in the US market for bakery mixes under the Sans Sucre brand.
Stevia has also featured to an increasing extent within the confectionery industry, another sector where sugar reduction is influencing company strategies. In 2010, Barry Callebaut developed a dark chocolate containing a blend of reb A, erythritol and dietary fibres for the Americas region, which claims to achieve a 90% reduction in sugar levels. It is worth noting that Japanese companies have been manufacturing chocolate containing stevia-based sweeteners for some time now.
Barry Callebaut chief innovation officer Hans Vriens says using stevia in chocolate can be “a little bit more difficult” than, say, in carbonated soft drinks, where the ingredient has initially been mostly used. The intense sweetness of stevia means you need less of it to replicate the same amount of sweetness from a larger amount of sugar, which can lead to questions for a chocolate manufacturer, he tells just-food. However, Vriens says this can be an “opportunity” to “mask taste issues” arising from using stevia. As such, he argues there are not possible after-taste problems from using the ingredient in chocolate. “I don’t think there are any issues on taste. You have to formulate in such a way that the off-taste that stevia has – it has a liquorice taste – are gone,” he says.
Looking at the business potential for using stevia in chocolate, Vriens, a former executive at energy drinks giant Red Bull, says it is unlikely to become a mainstream market could become an “interesting” niche.
“Is this a mass market that’s going to be 30% of the market? No. It’s a very interesting niche to be in. I always make this joke about Red Bull. Everybody always ignored us because we were a niche. But, hey, I’d like to own a US$5bn niche. It’s the same thing here. Stevia is a 2% niche but a very nice one that you can differentiate yourselves with,” he says. “If you’re a producer of chocolate and you can’t afford large marketing budgets, this is a really nice way of differentiating yourself. If you’re customers and consumers care about stevia and natural sweeteners instead of sugar alcohols, if you want to have a cleaner label made from 100% natural substances, this is a really nice solution.”
To date, stevia-based sweeteners have, suppliers claim, performed particularly well in the beverages industry, particularly in soft drinks. “Great success has been witnessed in categories such as flavoured water, juice and ready-to-drink (RTD) tea initially,” PureCircle says. “Carbonated soft drinks are the next strong developing sector, and show immense potential for sugar replacement or reduction with stevia.”
Stevia-based sweeteners carry added appeal for manufacturers of carbonated soft drinks since they may help the industry counter some of the recent calls for so-called soda taxes (i.e. a surcharge on sugary drinks such as cola) that have been proposed in countries such as the US. As a result, it is the soft drinks market that arguably holds the greatest potential for stevia-based products, on account of its global size and high consumer penetration.
A notable success story for stevia-based sweeteners in the soft drinks market has been Trop50, which is produced by PepsiCo and was described as the first orange juice sweetened with stevia extracts in the US. The brand recorded sales worth over $100m in its first year after launch due in part to its appeal among more health-conscious juice drinkers. Stevia-based sweeteners are also used in the manufacture of other PepsiCo drinks brands, including G2 Natural (an extension to the Gatorade range) and SoBe Lifewater.
Coca-Cola Co. has also been active in this sphere, and now uses Cargill’s Truvia in the manufacture of some of its major brands – examples include Sprite Green, Vitaminwater Zero and some of its Minute Maid and Odwalla branded fruit juices and drinks. Outside the US, stevia-based sweeteners currently feature in the manufacture of Coca-Cola’s Fanta and Nestea brands in western Europe, although usage is expected to increase in the region over the coming year now the ingredient has gained regulatory clearance.
Other soft drinks manufacturers that have been using stevia-based products include Hansen Beverages Co. and Rainforest Beverages in the US, as well as Suntory’s Frucor energy drinks in Australasia. Soft drinks containing stevia extracts are frequently positioned on a health platform, offering benefits such as low calorie and a lack of artificial ingredients and additives, in addition to their low/no-sugar content.
Besides food and beverages, stevia-based products also appear to be performing exceptionally well within the market for table-top sweeteners in countries such as the US and France. Not only have they successfully captured market share at the expense of some of the more established varieties of intense sweetener, but they also appear to have attracted new consumers, thereby growing the overall market – in France, for example, the recent launch of stevia-based products is thought to have resulted in up to 2m additional people buying table-top sweeteners.
Much of this growth has been driven by the successful launch of leading brands such as PureVia and Truvia. PureVia, for example, now forms part of the range of the US company Merisant, alongside more established brands such as Equal and Canderel. Present in more than 90 countries worldwide, Merisant accounts for over 25% of the global market for table-top sweeteners. Since its launch, PureVia has captured 80% of the French market for stevia-based table-top sweeteners, while Cargill’s Truvia assumed second place within the US market within 12 months of gaining regulatory clearance.
Recent new product activity suggests that stevia-based products are poised to capture an increasing share of the Western European market for table-top sweeteners. Since the end of 2011, Truvia has been launched in European countries such as the UK, Ireland, France and Italy, mostly in partnership with some of the region’s major sugar producers. And other brands, including PureVia and Tate & Lyle Sugars’ Light at Heart, have also been launched in the UK.
Additional reporting by Dean Best.