Stevia use grows globally amid regulatory, formulation issues

by Jeff Gelski
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CHICAGO – The global journey continues for the stevia industry, but it comes with obstacles. Companies must navigate regulatory issues country by country. Formulators must climb steep learning curves formulation by formulation.

More than 1,100 new products that use stevia as a sweetener already have been launched globally in 2013, said Lu Ann Williams, head of research at Innova Market Insights, Duiven, The Netherlands. Stevia, a natural, zero-calorie, high-intensity sweetener, now ranks among the top five non-nutritive sweeteners used in new product launches.

Ms. Williams spoke July 14 before a standing-room-only crowd during a presentation at the Institute of Food Technologists’ annual meeting and food exposition in Chicago.

The top category for launches with stevia remains soft drinks, but the number of dairy launches with stevia is growing, she said.

Other categories show promise. Stevia may fit well in the cereal bar and energy bar category because the category has a natural image. Juice makers may charge more of a premium price for products with stevia because artificial sweeteners are more likely to damage the consumer image of juice, which they may view as more of a natural product.

There are “gaps in the market” for the use of stevia in children’s products and sports drinks, Ms. Williams said.

Earlier this century the market opened for the use of stevia in foods and beverages in the United States, the European Union and Canada. The International Stevia Council expects India, Indonesia and Thailand to approve the sweetener’s use later this year, said Maria Teresa Scardigli, executive director of the Brussels-based organization.

She said companies that wish to sell stevia extracts or stevia-sweetened products in multiple countries should be aware of differing regulations.

For example, stevia extraction involves taking steviol glycosides, such as Rebaudioside A, out of the stevia plant. In the United States 9 types of steviol glycosides are approved for use while 10 are approved in the European Union, 5 are approved in China and 4 are approved in Japan. The approved food categories and the use levels in each of the categories also differ by country.

“There is a lot of difference in formulating based on the regulations you have,” Ms. Scardigli said.

Besides the regulatory front, companies may face a “steep learning curve” when formulating stevia into various food and beverage categories, said Melanie Goulson, food science and applications manager for Minneapolis-based Cargill. She has led a research team that has logged more than 80,000 hours working with stevia extracts.

“One conclusion we can make today is there are just no drop-in solutions,” she said.

She said formulators should focus on five areas: targeting use levels, boosting sweetness, managing the sweet-sour balance, creating mouthfeel and optimizing taste.

Using sweetener blends may be the best option for beverages, said John Martin, global, director, technical development and innovation, for PureCircle, Ltd., which is based in Malaysia and has a U.S. office in Oak Brook, Ill. The mid-calorie category may be a good fit. Fruit flavors or acidic-type flavors may work well with stevia extracts in beverages, he said. Flavors from strawberries may cause more problems.

While beverage formulators may need to avoid an unwanted, lingering aftertaste with stevia, dairy formulators may need to build sweetness up front, or immediately when the consumer tastes the product, Mr. Martin said.

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