Stevia buyers beware: There are some ‘awful’ extracts out there…
Jim Kempland, vice president, marketing, at stevia supplier Sweet Green Fields (SGF) was speaking to FoodNavigator-USA after SGF revealed it had been granted what it described as the first ever patent in the US on a process for extracting 99%+ purity Reb-A.
Asked how the stevia supply market was evolving, he said: “There are a lot of traders - rather than manufacturers - out there right now that are jumping in and out of the market. They see inventory and try to sell it short, but the problem, which is pretty evident when you do sensory testing, is quality.
“There is a lot of awful product out there - so it is a case of buyer beware.
“But while the stevia market has been categorized by some as the Wild West, reputable global food and beverage manufacturers are overly cautious when sourcing ingredients and they need high quality, reputable suppliers that will not engage in practices that will disrupt the market from a quality or pricing standpoint.”
Privately-held SGF had generated “incremental gains every year since 2006, with no big fluctuations”, in stark contrast to some other players in the stevia supply market, he claimed.
Are reduced calorie products the real sweet spot for stevia?
But where are the growth opportunities for stevia, and has the natural sweeter lived up to the hype?
While much of the initial media coverage had focused on whether stevia would challenge the supremacy of ‘artificial’ rivals such as aspartame in diet soft drinks, its real potential lay elsewhere, claimed Kempland.
“Reb-A is not just about zero-calorie. If you look at where there is a need in beverages for example, those that drink diet soft drinks are happy with the aspartame- and sucralose-sweetened beverages out there.
“[But] there is a need on the full-calorie side where people want a lower calorie great-tasting, natural product – and here you can combine sucrose and stevia and get a 50% calorie reduction.
“Look at the best-selling products at the moment. It’s things like Trop50, which uses natural sweeteners to lower calories in a great-tasting product.”
Bitter aftertaste concerns have been over played
Meanwhile, the issue of lingering bitterness and the use of masking agents to counter it in relation to stevia had also been given disproportionate media attention, he argued.
“All high intensity sweeteners have these issues to deal with, but in fact, with stevia, you can purify it to a very high degree and eliminate the bitter compounds – the extraction process is as much about what is being taken out as what you’re leaving in.
“But it’s also about getting the formulation right. We don’t promote the use of masking agents to use with stevia. Many of them appear not to do an awful lot.”
He added: “As for applications, the industry has learned a lot since 2008. There are a lot of things that people said couldn’t be done and they are being done.”
Owing to the economic downturn, many manufacturers had also become rather risk averse in 2008-10 when it came to new product development, but had since recognized that they had to innovate, he said.
“I think that there is a lot of pent-up demand and we’re going to see stevia take up its rightful place in the sweeteners market.”
As to whether monk-fruit based natural sweeteners such as Tate & Lyle’s Purefruit sweetener represented a threat to stevia, he said: “We see monk fruit extracts as very complementary to stevia although I believe there are cost issues.”
On what basis are stevia suppliers competing?
As to how food and beverage manufacturers selected stevia suppliers, typically they were factoring in the quality and purity of extracts, applications skills, agronomic expertise, consistency and reliability of supply, and in some cases country-of-origin factors, said Kempland.
“We grow some stevia in the US, and that is important to some customers [most stevia is grown in Asia and South America].”
But more generally, he said, vertically-integrated manufacturers such as SGF that controlled the stevia supply chain end-to-end were proving the most attractive because they were able to provide customers with peace of mind over quality, traceability and supply.
SGF, which claims to be the only company in the US that can market a 99% purity stevia extract, says such ultra-pure grades had particular advantages in beverages. However, the “workhorse” when it came to food products was the 97% purity product, he said.
SGF: Exploring licensing agreements with companies interested in leveraging its patented technology
Dr Mel Jackson, vice president of science at SGF, is the driving force behind the US patent #792,3552 which covers its ‘fast precipitation process’ for extracting the steviol glycoside Reb-A.
He said: “To our knowledge, it’s the first one ever granted in the United States on a process for extracting high purity Reb-A.”
The process, which SGF claims is up to 50% faster than standard techniques, delivers purity levels of up to 99% using water and ethanol (rather than methanol or wood alcohol), and opened up new commercial opportunities, said Jackson.
“The plan is to move forward with licensing agreements from companies interested in leveraging our technology.”