Brussels has yet to fully clear the use of natural sweetener stevia in the EU but already suppliers are preparing the launch of products including the ingredient. Cargill and Associated British Foods are lining up the introduction of Truvia – a table-top sweetener made with stevia that is already on sale in the US – in the UK and, in this month’s just the answer, Dean Best met with executives from both sides to discuss their plans.

just-food: How did this partnership between Cargill and Silver Spoon, ABF’s retail sugar business, come about?

Tony Lucas, marketing director, Silver Spoon: Our respective parent companies have an existing relationship on the agricultural side in a company called Frontier. We just got talking; we have been watching the development of [stevia] in the US and we have had an awareness of the stevia plant as a source of sweetness, so we picked up the phone, started talking and it’s gone from there. We have always had a broad portfolio in the sweetening category and we believe that you have got to offer consumer choice. This is a natural extension of that range. It’s a very comfortable fit with the Silver Spoon brand and it’s an opportunity for growth.

just-food: ABF already has a partnership, through its British Sugar arm, with another stevia supplier, PureCircle, hasn’t it?

Lucas: We’re different organisations, with different management boards. This is really today about Truvia as a table-top sweetener, not about stevia as an industrial food ingredient. The two partnerships are completely separate, different sectors, different teams and different companies.

just-food: So, there isn’t any concern from Cargill’s perspective of the possible sharing of knowledge with competitors?

Zanna McFerson, business director of Cargill’s Truvia unit: No, this is all about taking this product to consumers through retail and the combination of our product and [Silver Spoon’s] leadership position here in sugars and sweeteners.

Ray Merrick, supply and development director, Silver Spoon: That combination is very strong. We are building on what Cargill have done. They have trail-blazed and set the market alight over there. With our network – we already distribute to all the major supermarkets and major foodservice customers in the UK – hopefully that combination, right back to the field from the table, with a strong supply chain, is something we can bring to market, once we get approval in the UK.

just-food: What has been behind the initial success of Truvia in the US?

McFerson: First, it’s natural and zero-calorie, which didn’t exist before at all. Truly an innovation in the category, which drives growth and has people invigorated about going to the category. And, people today, when they manage their sugars and calories, they care about where their food comes from.

just-food: What kind of marketing initiatives have you been pursuing to educate consumers about the product and stevia?

McFerson: Our marketing mix is broad and multi-disciplined – so through digital, print, TV – and a lot on the education of what it really is and, in the end, it’s pretty simple, right? It’s just natural sweetness, low calories and guilt free.

Mark Brooks, global product line director, Truvia: Show the leaf so consumers can connect with where the product comes from. And that’s what we are going to do in the UK. We are going to have to explain to the consumer why this is different and help drive them into the aisle to try it. We are going to have a joint marketing campaign and you are also going to see the Silver Spoon mark on the packaging. We envisage having TV, print, digital and social [marketing] because that’s been very successful in the US.

just-food: Were there any initial teething problems in the US over the taste of Truvia? Was there any reaction from consumers?

Brooks: If you take the product form, that helps bridge that. When you see and interact with the product, you don’t mind putting it on fruit or cereal because you have got the reference point of the granules for sugar – versus when you are dealing with the powdered product, when you may put it in a beverage but other usage occasions don’t happen. In terms of the formulation, we spent such a long term with consumer testing to make sure that it was a taste that resonated, so we didn’t experience that.

just-food: How much money is being invested behind the launch in the UK?

Lucas: We haven’t decided yet but we will do some research and consider a number of scenarios but it will be sufficient to drive consumer awareness and trial. It’s too soon to quote any numbers.

Brooks: It’s a mainstream offering. We are not looking for it to be a niche product. We want to make sure there is general awareness. People are going to need to know what it is, so we are going to have to go multi-channel and also make sure the consumer, as we found out in the US, has somewhere to go to find out more – to support it with rich, digital content.

just-food: Have you had any conversations about listings in the UK yet?

Lucas: I wouldn’t say we have listings lined up as it is a bit early to actually have those formal listing conversations. We know from general conversations with the trade that there’ll be huge interest in this because it is a category grower, novel, innovative and on-trend, so we expect our customers to engage with this very, very quickly.

just-food: It’s going to be a slow burn in the UK, isn’t it, because of the lack of awareness of stevia?

Lucas: If you talk about the US experience, I don’t think it was a slow burn in the US.

McFerson: No, from essentially nothing to Truvia having 62% awareness in the US among target consumers today. In two years, we have come a long way and we still have more to go so we haven’t yet tapped the full potential.

Lucas: There will be huge consumer interest in this because it is from a natural source. We already know that from research – it comes up even if you don’t ask the question – because for the consumer, it’s a holy grail solution.