Mining the stevia leaf: ‘Reb A purity is the old way of thinking’
Three years after the first stevia extracts were given the FDA regulatory go-ahead for use in food and beverages in the United States, stevia suppliers are continuing to look for new ways to create a sugar-type flavor in new product formulations. Many early stevia-sweetened products were plagued by poor publicity about a distinctive bitter, licorice-like aftertaste.
But Hecker claims that the key to better tasting products may be using combinations of different steviol glycosides – the sweet components in the stevia leaf – rather than just Reb A, as was the case in the US three years ago.
Hecker told FoodNavigator-USA: “There’s two things happening concurrently: There is recognition that there are limitations in Reb A, and there’s a lot going on in the stevia leaf…We’ve mined the leaf.
“Reb A purity is really the old way of thinking. People are interested in how the different glycosides work together in particular applications. …All of these glycosides have different taste profiles. They have different sweetness curves and they interact differently with each other. You don’t need major changes to make a major difference.”
A new mid-calorie era?
The other big change from the early days of stevia in the US has been a major marketing shift toward mid-calorie products and sugar reduction, and away from necessarily replacing sugar or artificial sweeteners entirely. But with plenty of examples of high-profile failures in the mid-calorie space – such as PepsiCo’s Pepsi Edge and XL – is it wise to turn the spotlight on this area again?
“It is a different time,” Hecker said; one that is marked by heightened awareness of sugar intake, consideration of sugar taxes, and the recent proposal to limit soda size in New York.
“We think there is potential to reduce calories on a mass scale. ...You see concepts that don’t make people feel like they are going to a diet product. Companies are also getting better at formulating. There is a lot of planning that has been going on over the last few years and there has been a lot of innovation.”
In addition, stevia’s potential has been helped by a consumer backlash against artificial sweeteners, and new stevia-containing product launches have spurred other companies to follow suit all over the world.
Over time, Hecker said he thinks stevia could take as much as a quarter of the world sugar market, but he acknowledges that there are still challenges ahead.
“There is no question that in certain metrics taste is a barrier.”
He added: “The only way to get to great innovation is to realize that you are not there.”