Product launches containing stevia as an ingredient have accelerated since regulatory hurdles were dismantled in 2008, when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued its first letters of non-objection that high-purity stevia extracts were generally recognized as safe (GRAS) for use in foods and beverages. To date, a total of 157 stevia-containing foods and drinks have been launched on the US market - 15 in 2008, 30 in 2009, 73 in 2010, and 39 so far this year, according to Mintel's Global New Products Database.
Speaking to FoodNavigator-USA at the IFT expo in New Orleans last week, Hecker said that stevia was beginning to fill a broader space in the market, even if the initial surge of excitement around the natural sweetener was beginning to subside.
“The hype that happened in 2008 created inflated expectations, not that stevia can’t deliver, but the terminology – that it was the ‘holy grail’ – delayed some of the success in product development,” Hecker said.
When GRAS notices were first issued two and a half years ago, Reb A, or rebaudioside A, was held up by many as the ideal zero-calorie, naturally derived sweetener, but Hecker said that industry was beginning to realize that there is much more to the stevia plant and was starting to experiment with other sweet components from the stevia leaf.
“The reality is there were some challenges related to stevia,” he said. “Early on you had a lot of people thinking they could just substitute out sugar and substitute in stevia…but it is a combination of answers. There is now a portfolio of stevia ingredients that didn’t exist before.”
He said that while the strength of Reb A was getting a 50 percent calorie reduction, other stevia ingredients could provide a more economic solution and still reduce calories by 25 to 30 percent. For example, PureCircle’s SG95 stevia-derived sweetener, introduced in July last year, contains nine different steviol glycosides (the sweet components of the stevia leaf) – all of which have been the subject of FDA GRAS letters of no objection.
“Our whole business model is about a mass volume sweetener that sits alongside sugar and corn,” Hecker said. “…In order to address a mass volume sweetener market you need to address mass volume market needs. That hasn’t changed, but it’s definitely been an evolution.”
The stevia industry has always been careful to focus on the fact that the sweetener comes from a plant, and although there is no FDA definition of ‘natural’, Hecker stressed that the discussion about stevia needed to remain science-based.
“People can decide what they like about ‘natural’; that’s a choice, but safety is non-negotiable…Educated people aren’t always the most informed. Unless we make the information easy for them to find it is understandable if they are not,” he said.