NEW YORK — Stevia or Reb A, the sweetener derived from the Stevia plant, may fill a need in the food and beverage market, according to a new Rabobank report titled "Stevia and the U.S. Market."

"Consumer concerns regarding obesity and the growing demand for all-natural products bode well for Reb A to quickly gain market share," said Stephen Rannekleiv, executive director for Rabobank Food & Agribusiness Research and Advisory. "However, while success seems imminent and we expect annual U.S. sales of Reb A to reach approximately $700 million within 5 years, numerous hurdles must still be overcome."

The challenges include the fact individual tastes may vary substantially and some consumers claim to detect a bitter or licorice aftertaste. In addition, it does not provide enough sweetness for some soft drinks and may not be combined with other non-caloric sweeteners to reach full sweetness and still maintain the all-natural claim.

Pricing is another challenge as Reb A costs more than other mainstream sweeteners because demand is still being established and production lacks efficiencies of scale. In addition, the European Union is in the process of approving Reb A as a food ingredient, and this may cause more pressure on pricing.

Yet there are numerous advantages to stevia. It is heat, light and ph stable and may be used in applications where other sweeteners may not.

"Most importantly, because stevia-based sweeteners are plant derived and naturally occurring they can be incorporated into products with all-natural claims, and to date no other commercially available high-intensity sweetener can fill this gap," Mr. Rannekleiv said.