Natural or not?

Could stevia be the panacea that health-conscious consumers are demandingCould stevia be the panacea that health-conscious consumers are demanding – an ingredient of natural origin that provides sweetness without the calories or health concerns of sugar?

Stevia’s unleashed something of a storm in a tea cup in the South African food industry recently. It seems to be the sweetener that ticks all the boxes when it comes to current food trends:

Low cal? Tick. Low carb? Tick. Natural? Ah, there’s the rub. While steviol glycosides are extracted from a natural source, the stevia plant, there’s some confusion over whether the sweetener could be legitimately labelled as ‘natural’.

 And the outcome is, in South Africa anyway, that sweeteners derived from stevia can quite categorically not be labelled as natural. This is according to Maryke Herbst, assistant director of food control in the Department of Health (DoH).

‘The South African approach taken with regards the term ‘natural’ is only ingredients that are added to a product as is – for example, lemon juice or beetroot juice in a totally unprocessed state with no chemicals added or a chemical process employed in an extraction process – can be called ‘natural’,’ she says. ‘The use of alcohol in the extraction process for stevia renders it not suitable for the term ‘natural’.  South Africa follows the guidelines as set out by the Food Safety Authority of the UK relating to the term.’

Nigel Sunley, a well-known technical consultant to the food industry on regulatory matters, most vehemently supports this view, stating that ‘stevia is emphatically not natural’. This is because, according to the definition of natural in the DoH guidelines, the extensive extraction and purification process that stevia undergoes – which includes extraction using alcohol – to achieve the steviol glycosides precludes it from being called natural.

Michael Gristwood, executive director of the South African Association of the Flavour & Fragrance IndustryMichael Gristwood, executive director of the South African Association of the Flavour & Fragrance Industry (SAAFFI), concurred, stating that the reason is ‘the process it undergoes to get it into the form in which it can be used as an ingredient for foodstuffs’.

Confusion over its naturalness aside, this sweetener has seen a phenomenal uptake in a relatively short period and now it has been officially mandated for use in South Africa. According to Euromonitor International analyst Lauren Bandy, despite stevia’s bitter aftertaste and relatively high price, it’s become a mainstream ingredient globally. Its focus has been on calorie reduction in a ‘natural’ way for healthy everyday living, competing with other high-intensity sweeteners that are of artificial origin.

Bandy maintains that stevia has really made its mark in the soft beverages arena. At present, the volume of stevia sweeteners used in soft drinks around the world is much lower than that of other sweeteners, but, for such a new category, it’s performing well and demand has risen from two tonnes in 2007 to 338 tonnes in 2011. What’s more, stevia’s growth forecasts are ahead of alternative ingredients. In terms of the volume of equivalent sucrose replaced, it’s forecast to overtake cyclamate to become the fifth most important high intensity sweetener by 2016.

When looking at total stevia consumption, this grew from 76.5 tonnes in 2006 to 498 tonnes by 2011 globally. Going forward, Euromonitor predicts global consumption to hit close on 1 200 tonnes in 2013 and over 1 400 tonnes by 2016.

The Middle East and Africa region still lag behind the rest of the world in usage, with only 1.2 tonnes expected by 2016. However, if activity in the local market is anything to go by, it’s likely that stevia will see a fairly good track record in the southern part of the continent.

The local market

New sweetener regulations promulgated in September 2012 made the use of steviol glycosides legal in South Africa.

Dr Nokwanda Makunga, president for the South African Association for Botanists‘In some countries, these stevia-derived chemicals are the frontline sweetening agents. The adoption of these sweeteners in the South African industry – especially to consumers who are looking for a more green option – will likely follow world trends,’ comments Dr Nokwanda Makunga, president for the South African Association for Botanists and a senior lecturer at the University of Stellenbosch’s Department of Zoology and Botany. ‘As consumers have a better understanding of their options, they’ll be able to make an informed decision about their choice of sweetener. These chemicals aren’t necessarily meant to replace other sweetening agents but provide the consumer with an opportunity to choose their preferred sweetener.’

Jeanita de Pomeroy-Legg, technical manager at Health Connection Wholefoods, says that its range of stevia products is targeted to slimmers and diabetics. Anecdotally, it appears stevia customers are typically ‘health conscious individuals who read labels carefully’, she maintains, and concurs with Makunga regarding stevia widening consumer choice and that it’s replacing both sugar and other artificial sweeteners. The company markets stevia as a sugar substitute to be used in drinks, cereals, cooking and baking. As well as consumer interest, the company has had requests for stevia products by food manufacturers, for example, to sweeten yoghurt. Health Connection’s stevia range includes powder, liquid and tablets (including a pocket dispenser). ‘The stevia liquid and tablets are currently selling the fastest,’ states De Pomeroy-Legg.

Canderel Green sweetener contains stevia and is a low calorie and low carbohydrate alternative to sugarAnother stevia product to hit SA shelves is Canderel Green from Merisant. Available as a powder in an easily dispensable ‘stick’ packet, and in tablet form, it’s positioned as a kilojoule and carbohydrate-free alternative to sugar that is made with ingredients of natural origin. The active ingredient is Reb A, an extract from the Stevia rebaudiana plant that is up to 300 times sweeter than sugar. The company states that, rather than being an alternative to aspartame (a synthetic, chemical product), Canderel Green gives consumers who want to move away from sugar more choice of low kilojoule sweeteners.

The stevia in Canderel Green is manufactured by PureCircle, the world’s leading producer of stevia, and supplied in South Africa by Savannah Fine Chemicals. The Canderel product has sparked a lot of interest in the local food industry, with much development work happening at the moment. While the stevia plant hails from Paraguay, 80 per cent of commercial leaves are now grown in China. PureCircle has plantations in China, Kenya, Columbia, the US, as well as an extraction facility in Malaysia. It claims to be the only stevia manufacturer that offers a fully-integrated supply chain from plant breeding to finished product, allowing it to control costs and maintain quality standards.

Alcohol?

The use of alcohol in the stevia extraction process might raise a few eyebrows, but De Pomeroy-Legg points out that ‘the level of alcohol in the end product is very unlikely to be of any concern for people needing to avoid alcohol for health or religious reasons’. Indeed, PureCircle’s stevia products are certified Halaal and Kosher.

Locally, it looks as though the floodgates have only just started to open. Around the world, there are a multitude of stevia containing products entering the market, from soft drinks to chewing gum, and it’s only a matter of time before these reach our shores. In addition, local food and beverage manufacturers are spending many hours and R&D budgets on developing homegrown products that include stevia.

Stevia news from around the world

Around the world, the stevia market is heating up:

  • Sunwin Stevia International entered into a worldwide stevia distribution agreement with Wild Flavorsand is also developing six new formulations with them in order to tackle the $10.3 billion Chinese bakery.
    Cola Create_from_Tate__Lyle_contains_Tasteva_Stevia_Sweetener

    Cola Create from Tate & Lyle contains Tasteva Stevia Sweetener

  • Beneo has recently produced a new fibre-enriched candy called SteviaBalance, which was launched by German confectionery manufacturer Bodeta. The candy’s core uses Beneo’s dietary fibre oligofructose and the main body of the candy contains Isomalt, oligofructose and stevia.
  • Tate & Lyle has produced a fizzy cola drink, Cola Create, with 50 per cent fewer calories, using Tasteva, a stevia-based sweetener that it developed. It maintains Tasteva doesn’t have the bitter liquorice aftertaste associated with many early stevia sweeteners.
  • At the end of last year, PepsiCo launched a stevia-sweetened soda in Australia in response to rival Coca Cola’s use of stevia in more than 25 countries. Pepsi Next has 30 per cent fewer calories than the regular version.