On November 11 the European Parliament rubber-stamped approval of the sale and use of steviol glycosides in foods and beverages.
But Euromonitor International senior research analyst, Ivan Uzunov, issued the following warning in a company podcast: “Despite the enthusiasm, some analysts still warn that stevia has to overcome issues of taste. Some say that its liquorice-like profile is a deterrent to some consumers.”
There was also entrenched conservatism amongst some consumers, who might not like the change in taste of their soft drink brands, Uzunov added.
“In response to the taste issue, there are new innovations occurring. For example, blending stevia with other sweeteners to address the taste concerns,” he said.
“The high price point might also prove to be an obstacle for the forecasted fast growth of the stevia-sweetened beverages. However, there is no doubt that stevia will cause significant stir in the industry in the near future,” Uzunov added.
Uzunov reminded listeners that stevia extracts were not approved worldwide, with use of the natural sweetener limited and even banned in countries such as Singapore.
Weight management potential
Various forms of stevia extracts were available in parts of the European Union (EU) until now, but only as dietary supplements controlled by medicine authorities in each country, he said.
Stevia had gathered such widespread interest amongst manufacturers because of rising demand for low carbohydrate, low-sugar food alternatives, according to Uzunov.
Its health benefits included a negligible effect on blood glucose, weight management properties, evidence that it improved mental health and memory and anti-diabetic properties, he said.
Despite potential taste issues, Uzunov said that stevia had advantage due to its close taste profile vis-à-vis sucrose.
He said: “The health properties are not the only reason why stevia is superior to other sweetener types. There are quite a few barriers when selling low calorie beverages, but the taste issue is the largest.
“Low calorie products have a perception of inferior taste and don’t sell too well, so many ingredient producers are currently working hard on the ingredients to enable greater fat or sugar reduction.
Stevia opened a “field of experimentation” in that respect, Uzunov added, due to its weight management properties, “one of the most important issues facing the health and wellness industry, a massive market worth more than €100bn [in Europe].”
Regular carbonate woe
The non-alcoholic beverage market in Europe was hard hit by the global economic downturn in 2008 and 2009, Uzunov said, but had rebounded strongly over the past two years.
At the same time the market in Eastern Europe recovered completely in 2009 from the drop in 2008, and grew by a further 9 per cent during 2011.
The market in the west accounted for a total of €82bn euro, Uzunov said, while in the east sales reached €32bn. However, there was a different dynamic within the various non-alcoholic drinks segments, he added.
“The fastest growing segments are sports and energy drinks, low calorie beverages, and all products with added health properties – reduced caffeine, reduced sugar, etc.," Uzunov said.
“On the other hand, the sales of regular carbonates, other concentrates and other unhealthy products are decreasing.”
From that point of view, stevia-based products promise quick success to their producers in a market where consumers were becoming increasingly health conscious, he added.