MINNEAPOLIS — A development program for fermentation-based steviol glycosides is moving into pilot scale ahead of schedule, Cargill and Evolva Holding S.A. said Sept. 9. The process, which does not involve the stevia plant, is designed to lower the cost of the zero-calorie, high-intensity sweeteners.

Evolva Holding makes individual components of the sweetener stevia via fermentation in yeast. The process uses low-cost plant sugars as starting material. The process bypasses the logistics associated with the traditional cultivation, processing and refining of stevia plants, which makes the supply more reliable and scalable at a lower cost, according to Reinach-based Evolva Holding.

Minneapolis-based Cargill and Evolva Holding on March 6 entered an agreement to jointly develop and commercialize fermentation-based steviol glycosides. Commercialization now may come sooner than expected, the two companies said Sept. 9.

“We are confident about our technical progress to date and are now moving to pilot scale in 2013 versus the original plan of 2014,” said Jill Zullo, technical director, Cargill Corn Milling North America.

Under the agreement, Cargill made an equity investment of 4.5 million Swiss francs ($4.8 million) in Evolva, which also stands to receive up to $7.5 million in milestone payments. Cargill will be responsible for commercialization.

Evolva has the right to a participation of up to 45% in the final business. If Evolva decides not to exercise the option, it will receive royalty payments from global sales of the co-developed steviol glycoside products. The royalties will scale from the mid-single digit to low double-digit percentages as a function of sales volume and other parameters.

“The stevia market is focused on understanding the subtleties of how different steviol glycosides interact to create the most pleasing sweetness profile,” said David Henstrom, global business director for health ingredients, Cargill Corn Milling North America. “This technology complements Cargill’s existing and forthcoming innovations in stevia-based sweeteners. With this development, it gives us the confidence to deeply engage with customers to identify great-tasting solutions.”

Cargill played a role in introducing the use of stevia-based sweeteners into foods and beverages in the United States. The Food and Drug Administration in December of 2008 answered a Generally Recognized As Safe GRAS) filing from Cargill by issuing a letter of no objection for the use of Rebaudioside A, a steviol glycoside in the stevia leaf, as an ingredient in foods and beverages. Cargill’s Truvia sweetener includes erythritol, stevia leaf extract and natural flavors.

According to Evolva Holding, stevia components are found in low concentrations in the stevia plant and are hard to extract. Fermentation allows the production of the individual components, including steviol glycosides, in any required volume.