Cargill believes it has passed stevia taste test just in time for new nutrition labels

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

Cargill believes it has passed stevia taste test just in time for new nutrition labels

Related tags Stevia

Consumer research leads Cargill to believe that it has finally rounded the stevia taste bend, just in time for the revamp of nutrition labeling phases in over the next several years.

Cargill highlighted recent consumer research it has done on several different food matrices using the company’s ViaTech stevia ingredients that shows that at significant stevia inclusions consumers could not tell the difference between a full calorie product and one that was sugar reduced using stevia.  The company testing both a reduced calorie sweetened iced tea and a reduced calorie iced coffee.

The tea was a 50% calorie reduction, while the iced coffee was a 33% reduction, both ranked against sugar sweetened controls. In both cases, consumers showed no measurable preference of one over the other.

“This is the first time we’ve focused on doing a full match with a full sugar product.  There were 68 people in the panels, and this shows that you can deliver the same great taste now with a reduced calorie product using stevia,”​ Andrew Ohmes, Cargill’s global product manager told FoodNavigator-USA. Cargill was highlighting the results of the consumer research at the recent SupplySide West trade show in Las Vegas, NV.

Deconstructing the stevia leaf

ViaTech stands for a swath of new technological approaches to using the non nutritive sweetener. It’s well known that the leaf, while offering exciting possibilities for calorie reduction, has continued to be plagued with drawbacks that have thus far prevented it from completely replacing sugar or other nutritive sweeteners in most applications. The chief complaints are “linger,” or stevia’s delayed onset of sweetness on the tongue, and bitterness, which is sometimes characterized as a licorice taste off note.

Cargill says it has dealt with this problem by deconstructing the stevia leaf and looking at each of the steviol glycosides individually and characterizing them for sweetness, bitterness and linger. The deconstructed molecules can then be put back together to best match the requirements for a given food matrix.  Some of the glycosides investigated during this process were Rebaudoside D and Rebaudoside M. These have interesting properties that the company believes, when used in the right ratios with other leaf constituents, will pave the way for complete sugar replacement.  The problem with them is that there isn’t enough of these compounds in the base leaf.  While ViaTech at the moment consists only of direct-from-the-leaf components, that won’t be the case in the future as Cargill continues to work on a fermentation pathway for these rare glycosides in partnership with Swiss company Evolva. The company had first planned on full scale launch of the ingredients this year.

For the moment, the company is focusing on lesser targets, such as sugar reductions of as much as 50%, though the ViaTech line was launched with much greater ambitions​. Even those more modest levels will be helpful when the new nutrition labels are affixed to products​ starting in 2018, with their prominent callouts of added sugars.

“Some customers are perfectly happy with a 10% or 15% sugar reduction,” ​Ohmes said. “But others, especially in the beverage area, are looking for more significant cuts. I think what will happen is that there will be a redefinition of what full calorie means. I think the new norm will be a 100-calorie beverage with potentially half as much sugar.”

Generational palate shift

Ohmes said that the search by formulators for calorie reduction solutions has been helped in part by a generational shift.  A whole category of consumers has grown up with the notion that too much sugar is not a good thing. For their parents, sugar was only bad insofar as it could rot your teeth, but now consumers are aware that too much of it can rot the rest of you, too, with threats including obesity, insulin sensitivity and the threat of developing full blown diabetes. 

“Sweetness is still desired, so I don’t see that changing.  But millennials coming through tend to prefer products that are a little less sweet,”​ he said. “Formulators, especially in the beverage area, are look for a range of options to provide to the consumer.”

One possible example of this trend can be seen in the rise in popularity of kombucha.  It’s hard to image that this fermented beverage, with its faintly vinegary aspect, would have made the same splash 30 years ago that it has over the past few years, with no end of growth in sight​. Even in kombucha, manufacturers have seen the sugar content in their products to be a vulnerability​.

In any case, Ohmes believes that strides made by Cargill and other stevia suppliers have started to lift the bitterness black mark that the ingreident had struggled with for a number of years after its launch. Consumers are now starting to believe that a stevia product won’t come with a queer taste that has to be put up with.

“The education of the consumer has come a long way in the US over the last eight years.  More and more products like Coke Life and Pepsi True—these are major brands that are doing well using stevia,” ​he said.

Cargill also has a strong position in other non nutritive sweeteners, Ohmes said, which can provide flexibility in applications. Among the sweetners that can be combined with ViaTech stevia ingredoients is Zerose, Cargill’s branded form of erythritol. An article published in a dentistry journal recently showed  Zerose’s heighted dental health benefits over competing sugar alcohols such as xylitol and sorbitol​.