Several stevia companies have announced agreements with sugar companies to develop and market blends of sugar and stevia around the world. Earlier this month, stevia supplier GLG Life Tech signed a binding memorandum of understanding with Mexico’s largest private sugar producer Group Azucarero Mexico, following on from a similar agreement with Australia’s largest sugar refiner, Sugar Australia, in April; and stevia supplier PureCircle launched a joint venture with major US sugar producer Imperial Sugar in February.
The idea of blending the two sweeteners is to take advantage of both products’ natural status, meaning that unlike many other sweeteners that could be used to reduce sugar, manufacturers could continue to use a natural claim while cutting calories, as long as the other ingredients in the product are natural. Such blends would also help retain the sucrose-like taste favored by consumers.
Vice president of marketing at GLG James Kempland said: “Most of the conversations we have had with sucrose producers have been really positive because we are effectively giving them a new market area.”
It is likely that soft drinks would be the first area for development for what Kempland calls ‘mid-calorie’ products.
Director of innovation and insight at Mintel Krista Faron explained: “People are much more aware of calories in beverages than they are in foods.”
But are consumers interested in the concept of ‘mid-calorie’ drinks?
Faron told FoodNavigator-USA.com: “I think it is a challenge because it lives in no man’s land. It’s neither a diet drink nor a full calorie beverage. But I think that what changes the dynamic is that we know that Americans are becoming more avid label readers…The mid-calorie drinks fall into this middle ground but for a segment of consumers the concept of having an all-natural drink is appealing.”
Stevia’s natural appeal is something the major players in the market are well aware of – and the segment of consumers for whom ‘natural’ is appealing is strong. According to figures from Mintel’s Global New Products Database, ‘natural’ is the number one claim label claim on new products, featuring on 23 percent of foods and beverages launched during 2009.
Identify the ‘mid-calorie’ consumer
But despite the appeal of a plant-derived sweetener, Faron warns that food and beverage manufacturers still need to find the right audience.
“They need to find consumers who are concerned about taste above all else, as well as a desire to reduce calories,” she said. “Companies need to identify that consumer: who they are, where they shop and what products they like. If they can do that, mid-calorie drinks could become successful. The added layer of course is identifying the consumer that wants natural products…If they don’t, then it could go on living in that no man’s land.”