It was a “Herculean task”, but the years spent developing the technology and protocols to comply with USDA organic regulations and produce commercially viable organic stevia crops have paid off, say bosses at Sweet Green Fields (SGF) after launching their first ‘fully compliant’ organic stevia product line.
Using certified organic stevia leaves is only one part of the equation, SGF VP Science Dr. Mel Jackson told FoodNavigator-USA, noting that there are some suspiciously cheap ‘organic’ stevia extracts on the market that “are not compliant at all”.
He added: “If you want to comply with National Organic Program (NOP) guidelines, you’ve also got to look at the extraction process, because you are only allowed to use processing aids on the NOP national list.
“For example, during the clarification step, routinely, that would use chemicals that are not considered NOP compliant. And if you use ethanol, it must be from a certified organic source. It’s taken us years if rigorous development to get here.”
SGF - which first sourced and processed organic stevia extracts in China - has recently harvested its first full scale commercial, certified organic stevia crop in North Carolina, he said.
We have a very active beverage pipeline
Mike Quin, SVP Sales & Marketing at SGF, said demand for organic extracts was growing in every application area from table top sweeteners to teas and baked goods. And while organic was more expensive, the price was “not an arm and a leg higher”, he said. “We’ve not seen any sticker shock.”
Overall, demand for stevia continued to grow steadily, he said: “We have a very active beverage pipeline but we’re seeing steady volume growth in table top and baking.”
While there has been a lot of debate about whether leading steviol glycoside Reb-A can cut it in zero calorie carbonated soft drinks such as cola, “full-diet” products using SGF’s ultra-purified Reb A Puresse Stevia 100 - claimed to be the highest purity product commercially available - had performed exceptionally well in sensory tests, he said.
Meanwhile, SGF had worked with customers to create “outstanding” teas using a proprietary blend of purified steviol glycosides called Optesse HPX that was ideal for certain formulations with more complex flavor systems when developing a zero or very low calorie product, he said.
But what about Reb X, Reb D, and other glycosides in the stevia leaf? “We’re constantly looking at the minor glycosides too - plus how to produce crops that have different glycoside profiles,” said Dr Jackson. “But has their importance been overplayed? I don’t know yet - the market is constantly evolving.”
Stevia: Are some extracts more ‘natural’ than others?
As for producing steviol glycosides from fermentation, meanwhile, the jury is out on whether consumers will accept these as ‘natural’, said Quin. “It’s uncharted territory at this point, but we do see that increasingly companies are hesitant to play fast and loose with the term natural because there has been a lot of pushback.”
As for stevia produced from leaves, are some extraction methods more obviously 'natural’ than others?
This is somewhat subjective, said Dr Jackson, who points out that you have to use some kind of processing aid to get high purity extracts from stevia. But SGF does not use methanol or formaldehyde in any part of its extraction process, and that is definitely important to customers concerned about ‘natural’ claims, he said.
“But where do you draw the line? In some places refined sugar is not considered natural.”
Dr Jackson is the driving force behind the US patent #792,3552 which covers SGF’s ‘fast precipitation process’ for extracting the steviol glycoside Reb-A.
The process, which SGF claims is up to 50% faster than standard techniques, delivers very high purity levels using water and ethanol (rather than methanol or wood alcohol) and has led to additional product patents on Reb-A with 98.7% purity and above granted in some markets (Australia, New Zealand and Canada) while its prosecution continues globally.
SGF grows crops in three US states (Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina) and in China. The primary extraction process is conducted in China but since late last year SGF has had the option of conducting the next step - high-purity extraction - in the US or in China.
Ultimately, said Quin, the aim is to add a US-based primary extraction facility such that SGF will be able to offer customers the choice of a fully integrated USA end-to-end supply chain (growing, primary extraction, and high purity extraction).