Stevia – nature’s zero-calorie great tasting sweetener

The story of stevia is evolving.  Not long ago, it was a little known, plant-based zero-calorie sweetener that worked well in some beverage and food applications.   It triggered enthusiasm when it first became available as an ingredient in 2008, because beverage and food companies were looking for a sweetener that was from nature and that had the taste of sugar.  But the initial enthusiasm faded somewhat, with the realisation that taste limitations of the early-stage stevia sweetener prevented it from working well in a broad range of beverage and food products.

Stevia-leaf
But now, a decade later, all that has changed.  Due largely to PureCircle’s research, development and innovation, a range of stevia-based sweeteners with sugar-like taste and zero calories is now available.  These new from-nature sweeteners, often used in combinations with each other, work well in many beverages and foods, and that is advantageous for beverage and food companies.  They have an increasing need for just such an ingredient, because consumers, health experts and governments have become increasingly concerned about increases in obesity and diabetes, and consumers have become increasingly health and wellness conscious.

Background and the consumer

For over 200 years in South America, stevia has been nature’s sweetener, used to sweeten hot beverages like tea.  Since the first regulatory green light in the U.S. in 2008 for use of ingredients from the stevia leaf in foods and beverages, it has been utilised in more than 10 000 products globally.  In 2016 alone, close to 3 000 products launched with stevia, which reflects an annual growth rate over the last five years of roughly 35 percent.  Consumer awareness of stevia is growing, and stevia is viewed favourably by consumers.

Stevia – the evolution beyond Reb A

The stevia plant is part of the sunflower family.  Sweet-tasting parts of the stevia leaf are called steviol glycosides.  They are 200x to 350x sweeter than sugar, so a little goes a long way — and not just for food and beverage products but also for the environment.  Because it is so sweet, stevia requires less land, water and carbon than other plant based sweeteners.

When high purity stevia extracts first came on the market, they contained primarily Reb A – the most abundant steviol glycoside in the stevia leaf.  Reb A worked well to sweeten some beverages and foods, but sometimes left a lingering aftertaste, depending on the product and the extent of sugar reduction.

However, research revealed that Reb A is just one of the 40+ steviol glycosides in the stevia leaf.  Each has unique taste and performance attributes.   PureCircle led the way in moving beyond Reb A.  Among the additional stevia glycosides, or sweetener ingredients now available are Reb D and Reb M.  PureCircle is working to extract still others.  By combining different stevia glycosides, such as reb A, reb D and reb M, in varying amounts, we now understand how stevia sweeteners work best at achieving modest to deep sugar reduction levels, while enabling great taste in food and beverage products.

Getting to great taste

As we perfected these combinations for different kinds of beverages and foods, PureCircle developed solutions for food and beverage producers both to enhance their use of stevia for best taste and also to simplify their work with stevia.  PureCircle offers tailored combinations of steviol glycosides designed to address the unique sweetening needs of various food and beverage categories.  That makes the food and beverage producers’ formulation work easier.

As we’ve continued to research the full depth of the stevia leaf, we have also discovered stevia flavour modifiers. They work in synergy with stevia and other sweeteners to improve the taste, mouthfeel and sweetness profile of beverage or food products.  They provide cost benefits to beverage and food producers.  And they can be labelled as natural flavours on product ingredient labels.

Growing high quality stevia

PureCircle utilises a wide and expanding global agricultural network for its stevia supply, sourcing it from an increasing number of countries around the world.  In addition, with our stevia expertise, we undertake ongoing agronomy research.  PureCircle recently announced StarLeafTM stevia, a variety that contains a >20x increase in the most sugar-like glycosides.

Summary

Stevia is the from-nature, zero-calorie sweetener with the taste of sugar.  It is grown in an increasing number of locations around the world.  Its use is cost effective for food and beverage producers relative to sugar and HFCS.  PureCircle’s innovation has made it an ingredient that is easy to work with.  Stevia sweeteners work well in a broad range of food and beverage applications thereby providing valuable benefits to food and beverage producers.

PureCircle is represented in South Africa by Savannah Fine Chemicals.