KANSAS CITY – James May was visiting Paraguay in March 1982 when a Peace Corps worker told him to place a leaf in his mouth. It had a sweet, natural taste.
Mr. May’s life changed, and in the following years, so did the sweetener industry.
The stevia category gained traction over time, strengthened by federal approvals and new technology. Other natural sweeteners like monk fruit entered the US market. Now “rare sugars” like allulose are becoming tools in sugar reduction.
Before tasting a stevia leaf, Mr. May had worked in the medical field. He did not fit the stereotypical image of a natural foods pioneer in the 1980s, said his son, Michael May.
“They were a progressive part of the counterculture,” Michael May said of those in the natural food industry back then. “People would refer to them as hippies. My father was kind of different. My father was already a leading businessman for the American Medical Association. He had been a hospital administrator and worked with dialysis centers.”
Still, James May emptied the family savings account, even though he had a wife, Carol, and five children, to begin his journey with the natural, zero-calorie sweetener that was several hundred times sweeter than sugar.
“People thought he had lost his mind,” Michael May said. “They were calling him a quack. They didn’t know what he was doing.”
The project with the Peace Corps worker and another businessman did not pan out. The money soon was gone.
“That didn’t deter him from understanding what he needed to do was bring stevia to the United States,” Michael May said.
James May in 1983 began importing stevia and other herbal products into the United States.
“In the first four years that he had the company, he didn’t make a penny,” Michael May said. “I remember when I was a child, we would store some products in our garage, load up the family van and go store to store selling.”
A distributor once told James May he needed to have his stevia sold in 200 stores before the distributor would do business with him. The 200-store level was achieved.
Next came regulatory approval. The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 allowed stevia to be used as a dietary supplement in the United States but not as a sweetener. The FDA told James May he could not promote his product as being sweet or being from a leaf, Michael May said.
To get around this restriction, products from Wisdom Natural Brands, the company founded by James May, were sold under the SweetLeaf brand.
The FDA in 2008 began issuing “no questions” letters about the Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) status of various steviol glycosides within the stevia leaf for use as sweeteners in foods and beverages.
Multinational companies such as Cargill and Ingredion became active in the steviol glycosides industry. While Rebaudioside A first emerged as a steviol glycoside often used in formulations, the food and beverage industry since has found Reb D and Reb M to be closer to the taste profile and other characteristics of sugar.
Chicago-based ADM offers SweetRight Stevia Edge-M, said Sarah Diedrich, marketing director, global sweetening and texturizing.
“This new stevia solution offers improved sweetening, reduced bitterness and increased solubility compared to Reb M,” she said. “Stevia Edge-M is unique from other Reb M options as it is isolated directly from the stevia leaf and not produced by fermentation or bioconversion. As a result, it can be listed as ‘stevia leaf extract’ on product labels, helping meet consumers’ clean label desires. Plus, when compared to Reb M and Reb D, our SweetRight Stevia Edge-M has the added benefit of cost-savings.”
Minneapolis-based Cargill offers cost-savings in its EverSweet sweetener, which creates steviol glycosides through the fermentation of specially crafted yeast. Ingredion, Inc., Westchester, Ill., offers Reb M from three production technologies: extract, bioconversion and fermentation.
More regulatory certainty came in January 2022. Codex Alimentarius, an international food safety authority, adopted a framework for steviol glycosides encompassing four different technologies for production: stevia leaf extract, steviol glycosides from bioconversion, steviol glycosides from fermentation and glycosylated steviol glycosides.
ResearchAndMarkets.com, Dublin, Ireland, forecast the global stevia market to grow to about $1.62 billion in 2029 from $780 million in 2021.
Wisdom Natural Brands, Gilbert, Ariz., now offers stevia-based sweeteners, as well as monk fruit sweeteners, sold to food and beverage manufacturers and to consumers at the retail and e-commerce level.
James May passed away in 2017. Michael May had worked in the company warehouse in high school and was a sales representative while in college but left the business after receiving his PhD in military strategy from Kansas State University and then working for the US Air Force in 2005.
Michael May came back to Wisdom Natural Brands in 2013. He now is the president and CEO. The innovations and the new technology in the stevia industry should propel the category to growth for years to come.
“The technology with stevia is really increasing,” Michael May said. “Its use is becoming more ubiquitous.
“Consumers don’t even know they are consuming it. They are eating some type of food product off the shelf. They don’t know it has stevia in it. They just know that it has lower calories. The future of stevia is very strong. I constantly beat that drum: If you want to know what the next big sweetener is, it’s still stevia.”
Finding a microorganism
Studying high-fructose corn syrup put an idea in the mind of Ken Izumori, PhD, of Kagawa University in Japan. If an enzyme could convert glucose into fructose, could another enzyme convert fructose into other monosaccharides? Dr. Izumori’s ensuing studies made him a pioneer in the field of “rare sugars,” so called because they are found in limited quantities in nature, as his experiments make the rare sugars more cost-effective in reduced-sugar formulations.
Dr. Izumori began looking for microorganisms that could assist in making the conversion from fructose. He brought back microorganisms after visiting many areas in Japan or other parts of the world. He had his students, when visiting their families, bring back soil to the university, where the microorganisms in the soil could be studied.
Eventually, in 1991, he found the desired microorganism. It was in the backyard of a cafeteria connected to a building where Dr. Izumori worked. The enzyme converted fructose into a rare sugar called D-psicose, later named allulose, which is 70% as sweet as sugar but digested differently.
Until that time, rare sugars were almost unavailable commercially because of their cost, which could run as much as $400 per gram, said Yuma Tani, now deputy manager of the rare sugar business unit at Matsutani Chemical Industry Co. in Japan. Dr. Izumori’s process, called “Izumoring,” made allulose more affordable.
Matsutani began inquiring about the “rare sugar” in the late 1990s, Mr. Tani said.
“It took us nearly 10 years to gain the trust of Professor Izumori,” he said.
Mr. Tani began working with Dr. Izumori in 2006. Matsutani launched Astraea allulose in the United States in 2015. Ingredion, Inc., Westchester, Ill., and Matsutani in December 2018 entered a relationship to manufacture Astraea allulose in Mexico and market it in the Americas. Ingredion opened an allulose manufacturing facility in San Juan del Rio, Mexico, in November 2019.
Earlier that year, in April 2019, the US Food and Drug Administration said it would exclude allulose from the total sugars declaration and the added sugars declaration on the Nutrition Facts Label when allulose is used as an ingredient. While the FDA previously had said allulose was 4 calories per gram, just like sugar, the new ruling said allulose was 0.4 calories per gram. The action came after the FDA received a citizen petition from London-based Tate & Lyle, PLC, which sells Dolcia Prima allulose.
“The latest data suggests that allulose is different from other sugars in that it is not metabolized by the human body in the same way as table sugar,” said Susan Mayne, PhD, then director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “It has fewer calories, produces only negligible increases in blood glucose or insulin levels and does not promote dental decay.”
Allulose’s use as a sugar reduction tool has grown since then. Future Market Insights, Dubai, United Arab Emirates, in May 2021 forecast the global allulose market to have a compound annual growth rate of 8% from 2021 to 2031. The Insight Partners, New York, forecast the allulose market to reach $362.2 million in 2028 from $232.9 million in 2021 through a CAGR of 6.5%.
Rare sugars in the pipeline
Other rare sugars are appearing in the sugar-reduction category. Tagatose, a rare sugar, is 90% as sweet as sugar without any bitter notes or off-flavors, according to Bonumose, Charlottesville, Va. Daniel Wichelecki, PhD, invented an enzymatic pathway for low-cost tagatose. Dr. Wichelecki, as chief scientific officer, and Mr. Rogers, as CEO, co-founded Bonumose in 2016.
The Hershey Co., Hershey, Pa., and ASR Group, West Palm Beach, Fla., partnered in 2018 to co-lead an equity investment in Bonumose. The ASR Group is now Bonumose’s distribution partner in the United States, Canada, Mexico and Western Europe.
“We are not the first ones who tried to commercialize tagatose,” Mr. Rogers said. “Tagatose is great from anybody. What we offer is a cost advantage because of the enzyme process, which we’ve now extended to multiple other things.”
Rare sugar research is going international, too. The International Institute of Rare Sugar Research and Education operates out of Kagawa University. Dr. Izumori is a research adviser at the institute. A global outreach division organizes cooperative projects with universities such as Oxford University in England, the University of Florida in the United States and Chiang Mai University in Thailand.
Matsutani has explored other rare sugars besides allulose, but that is proprietary information, Mr. Tani said.
“We cannot disclose which (rare sugar) that we are working with,” he said. “No new rare sugar is coming in three years, but in five years maybe.”
Expect more innovation in natural sweeteners as well.
“Markedly, consumers are increasingly gravitating toward sweeteners they consider to be ‘closer-to-nature’ from simple, recognizable sources,” Ms. Diedrich of ADM said. “In fact, our research shows that consumers consider naturally sourced sweeteners to be better overall, for their personal well-being and the environment, in addition to having a preferred taste profile and free from artificial ingredients.”