The discovery and development of high-intensity sweeteners, used simply for their non-nutritive sweetening properties, signified a major turning point in the food and beverages industry. They enabled food technologists to develop products which satisfied our sweet cravings without adding to our caloric intake. With rising levels of obesity and diabetes dominating headlines worldwide, there has never before been so much emphasis on reducing our caloric intake as well as consuming healthier foods and beverages.
However as the use of high-intensity sweeteners has become more widespread so too has the rising number of voices expressing concerns over the toxicity of some of these products, fears that were first recognised at a national level when Japan decided to ban certain artificial sweeteners in the late 1960s. Since then the growing worldwide emphasis on health and a widening demand for natural ingredients has led the food and beverage industry to look much more closely at alternative sweetening ingredients.
One herb of South American origin qui-ckly caught the attention of the wider food and beverages industry boasting natural, non-caloric, sweetening properties: stevia.
Originating from Paraguay, Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni, commonly known simply as stevia, is one of the 240 species of herbs and shrubs which comprise the Stevia genus of the sunflower family (Asteraceae). Also known as sweetleaf and sugarleaf, stevia leaf offers sweetness without adding any calories.
The green powder derived from crude stevia leaves can be 15 to 30 times sweeter than sugar, while stevia extracts, which can come in both white crystalline powder and liquid format, offer a sweetening power hundreds of times greater than sugar. The sweetening properties are provided by the content of a dozen or so different steviol glycosides, which are largely odourless and freely soluble in water and ethanol. Also, stevia is heat stable at 95°C, photo stable and boasts a long shelf-life. Improvements in refining processes have helped to improve the overall taste profile and reduce the bitterness, enabling its use in a wide range of foods from beverages and baked goods to confectionary and preserves. Nevertheless, while its versatility as an ingredient makes it an attractive choice, it is stevia’s all-natural credentials which make it stand out from the crowd.
While it has been used in Paraguay for centuries, and extensively as a sweetener in general food use in the Far East for decades, particularly Japan, in the last four years stevia has enjoyed a meteoric rise in popularity on the global stage, thanks largely to the persistent efforts by key producers to push legislators worldwide to give the green light to this new zero-calorie sweetener.
Limited for many years by regulatory constraints, the breakthrough came in June 2008 when Joint WHO/FAO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) stated that steviol glycosides are safe for use in foods and beverages. Since then stevia’s profile on the global food and drinks stage has rocketed. The domino-effect approval by legislators across the world opened the door to new formulations and reformulations of foods and beverages with zero- or reduced-calorie content and its status as a global ingredient was secured with its incorporation into leading soft drinks brands including PepsiCo’s SoBe Lifewater Zero and Trop 50 calorie-reduced fruit juice, and Coca-Cola’s Glaceau Vitaminwater Zero and Sprite Green. As a table-top sweetener, it has gained popularity under brands names such as Truvia, developed jointly by Cargill and Coca-Cola, and PureVia, developed through the combined efforts of Whole Earth Sweetener Company, PepsiCo and PureCircle.
However stevia is still only at the start of its global journey. Although it has been given full approval in a number of regions, including the Far East, US, Asia Pacific and South America, crucially it has still to receive the green light from European authorities. Once approval has been secured in Europe, other regulating authorities in Africa and the Middle East are likely to follow suit, with full global approval expected by the end of 2012. The level of popular acceptance of stevia in North and South America and Asia suggests that the global potential for this all-natural sweetener is significant.
A new study by leading food and drink consultancy Zenith International estimates that worldwide sales of stevia reached 3,500 metric tonnes in 2010, a 27% increase on 2009, taking its overall market value to US$285 million. Zenith forecasts that the global market for stevia will reach 11,000 metric tonnes by 2014, equivalent to US$825 million by value.