With sugar prices and diabetes on the rise,Stevia rebaudiana continues to grow as a leader in the natural sweetener category. But product formulation isn’t as simple as switching stevia for sugar, prompting several stevia-sucrose blends to join the natural sweetener race. And now, an independent testing program from the International Stevia Council may just change the game.
It’s a sweet time to be in the stevia business. Sugar prices skyrocketed to record highs at the end of last year, prompting industry to rethink its go-to sweetener. It wasn’t until this past March that the Food and Agriculture Association of the United Nations reported some good news: the Sugar Price Index dropped for the first time after eight months of continuous price spikes, landing at 372 points.
Coupled with an alarming rate of diabetes in the United States and beyond, food formulations with natural sweeteners such as stevia are gaining traction in the marketplace. “Stevia is natural, has zero calories, has no effect on blood sugar and can replace sweet carbohydrate calories in the diet of adults and children who have diabetes,” said Alan Rogol, MD, Ph.D., scientific advisory board member of the Global Stevia Institute. “Studies in both laboratory animals and humans with type 1 and type 2 diabetes have shown stevia is safe.”
A study by Zenith International, a food and drink consultancy, estimates that worldwide stevia sales reached 3,500 metric tons in 2010, a 27 percent increase over 2009, taking its overall market value to $285 million. Zenith forecasts that the global market for stevia will reach 11,000 metric tons by 2014, equivalent to $825 million.
While innovation with stevia largely ceased in 2009 due to the economic climate, the “good ship stevia” has once again set sail, said Angus Flood, executive vice president, strategic development of Wisdom Natural Brands’ SweetLeaf Sweetener. SweetLeaf was the first stevia company to acquire self-affirmed GRAS status in March 2008. That year, the FDA granted GRAS status for high purity (over 96 percent) Rebaudioside A for use as a sweetener ingredient in beverage and food products.
Stevia is making its way into salad dressings, flavored milks, spice and protein blends, granola, yogurt, breads, beverages and breakfast cereals. According to the USDA, the U.S. sweetener market is the largest and most diverse in the world – and Americans are also the largest consumer of sweeteners, including high fructose corn syrup.
But it’s not as simple as switching stevia for sugar. As food formulators know, sugar doesn’t provide just sweetness. When you remove sugar, or sucrose, from the equation, suddenly products lose the other properties sugar provides: bulking, preservation, texture or mouthfeel, and even changes in the food’s appearance. Not to mention, stevia has a bitter aftertaste (if it hasn’t been extracted to remove the bitter notes) that needs to be masked. “Sugar-free” isn’t that easy to achieve, nor do many food processing companies want to eliminate it entirely – even if they’re being pressured by government health programs.
Text: New Hope