For all the talk of stevia’s potential, there are concerns over the ingredient, not least in the quality of supplies and the taste of products that contain the sweetener.
Although most indications suggest that stevia-based sweeteners are set to gain an increasing share of the global market for foods, beverages and table-top products, it should be noted that a number of potential barriers still need to be overcome by the industry.
Perhaps the most significant obstacle to market development to date has been the taste and flavour associated with stevia-based products. “Just a few years ago, the initial market barrier was delivering on great taste and natural calorie reduction,” Sue Bancroft, global marketing director for the EMEA and LATAM regions for PureCircle, says. In the past, stevia was associated with a bitter after-taste, which is why many stevia-based sweeteners have been used in blends with other varieties in food and drink manufacturing. Coca-Cola Co., for instance, has reported that the best sensory performance achieved with stevia is when it is combined with sucrose.
The industry has been working to address these challenges, since consumers are unlikely to respond positively to food and drinks with an off-putting after-taste. PureCircle, for example, has developed PureCircle Alpha, a proprietary combination of steviol glycosides which, in the words of the company, “has won industry praise for its cleaner, rounder taste profile across food and beverage categories”. In China, meanwhile, ANOC launched stevia solutions in 2011 that enabled food and drink suppliers to substitute other sweeteners without altering either formulation or taste.
Related to the issue of taste and flavour are the quality and purity of the stevia extracts themselves; in the words of GLG Life Tech “the more pure the glycoside, the less likely that bitterness will exist”. It says one of the main reasons why growth rates in the US failed to live up to initial projections was because “the purity and near-sugar levels of some [stevia] products were disappointing”. This view was echoed by another industry source, which claimed that “a lot of food and drink manufacturers have been faced with questionable quality levels, because there is a lot of variability in the stevia leaf”.
However, this situation now appears to be changing for the better. Industry suppliers such as Cargill and PureCircle have looked to take greater control of the supply chain, covering every stage of production from seedling development and farming to extraction and purification. This allows for complete traceability of stevia-based products and has resulted in the emergence of certification schemes such as Stevia PureCircle, which is discussed in more detail later in the briefing.
Meanwhile, GLG Life Tech is growing a new strain of stevia plant, which the company claims will result in greater yield of better quality reb A. This should also lower the price of stevia extracts across the industry – in previous years, higher prices for stevia-based products may have hindered market development to an extent. This has been due to the fact that production, refining and extraction capabilities were yet to fully develop.
Another potential barrier to industry development is consumer awareness of stevia-based products, which remains on the low side despite high levels of new product activity. It is partly for this reason that industry groups such as the Global Stevia Institute and the International Stevia Council have been formed, in order to communicate the benefits of stevia to consumers and to spread awareness of its suitability to those seeking natural and zero-calorie solutions.
Recent data from Mintel suggests that consumer awareness of stevia itself in the US is currently around 30%, while only 11% have tried products containing stevia and plan to continue doing so. According to the same source, over 60% of people in the US express no interest in trying out products made with stevia, while only a quarter (25%) have some interest in finding out more. Rather worryingly, 11% of US consumers felt that stevia was unsafe, and plan to avoid it altogether.
These figures are slightly disappointing given the high levels of activity that have been taking place in the sector of late. Clearly, manufacturers of products containing stevia need to play a leading and proactive role in educating people about its benefits. However, the situation is believed to be improving. “Consumer perception [of stevia] is getting better,” GLG Life Tech insists.
Companies themselves will have to play a major role in how the market for stevia-based sweeteners develops. It was felt by one industry source that “although many firms have been dabbling in the sector… they are waiting for the big companies and their brands to drive the market forwards”. It appears many have preferred to leave aspects of market development such as promotion and awareness campaigns to those with bigger budgets and more resources, which could help to explain why many people in the US, a market where stevia has been able to be used since 2008, are still unfamiliar with the ingredient.
It was also felt by the same source that “companies haven’t displayed a consistent approach regarding their marketing [of stevia] as yet”. Many appear to be unsure where stevia-based products should fit into their portfolio – for example, should they be marketed on a natural or a low-calorie platform, or both? These inconsistencies may also have hindered development of the stevia market to an extent, although the situation is expected to improve as more companies reformulate their products to include stevia-based sweeteners.