It’s green, sweeter than sugar and – if its producers have their way – could soon make a major leap into the alternative sweetener industry expected to draw more than $1 billion in nationwide demand by 2015.
Stevia, a wild South American herb whose white powder extract received recent approval as a food additive from the Food and Drug Administration, has given food and beverage makers a new fill-in for traditional sugar that its proponents say is a better option for sweet-toothed consumers.
“With the tremendous rise in obesity and diabetes on a global scale, the use of stevia extracts in food and beverage as a natural sweetener, in combination with other natural sweeteners like sugar, can greatly reduce the caloric intake yet provide consumers with great tasting and healthier products,” said Dean Francis, CEO of Sweet Green Fields, a Bellingham-based stevia producer. “Now consumers have a choice instead of the artificial sweeteners we have come to know.”
In January, Sweet Green Fields announced it had been granted a U.S. patent for the company’s new extraction method for rebaudioside A, the molecule in the leafy plant responsible for its sweet taste.
Dubbed the “fast precipitation process,” the method draws the molecule out of mid-grade stevia extracts, creating a highly refined powder comprised of at least 95 percent pure rebaudioside A. The process is 33 to 50 percent faster than conventional industry methods, according to the company.
The method is also more natural, relying on water and food-grade ethanol rather than the traditional methanol or wood alcohol.
“The key with extraction and refinement is utilizing all-natural components to achieve the high purity levels,” Francis said. “Sweet Green Fields uses only natural food-grade ethanol from yams versus other forms of alcohol.”
Mel Jackson, the company’s vice president of science and creator of the method, began developing the process in 2001. Sweet Green Fields’ executives believe the patent is the first one of its kind granted in the U.S.
THE NEWEST ADDITIVE
Stevia has a checkered past with American regulators.
Though extracts from the plant have long been used by indigenous South American people, and industrialized nations such as Japan have used stevia to sweeten food and drinks since the 1970s, only within the last five years have U.S. authorities allowed the substance to be used as a food additive.
In the 1980s, trade complaints to the FDA against stevia producers led to years of back-and-forth battle to determine the legality of stevia sales in the U.S.
The sweetener was outright banned in 1991, only to have authorities lift the ban three years later and allow stevia to be sold in the U.S. if labeled as a dietary supplement.
At the time, stevia proponents criticized the correlation between the federal suspicion of the plant and the increasing availability of artificial sweeteners such as aspartame.
Independent studies throughout the ‘90s failed to develop definitive conclusions on the health risks and benefits of stevia use.
However, within the past decade various health and regulatory organizations have started giving stevia the green light.
In 2006, the World Health Organization found the plant to be safe for consumption.
The European Commission followed by approving its use in the European Union in 2011.
Francis said he thinks since stevia, a high intensity sweetener, is subject to the same regulations as chemical sweeteners, misinformation ensues.
“Consumers understand stevia is an herb and has been consumed as a sweetener for centuries,” he said. “The global regulatory bodies have done extensive studies on this herb and found it to be what it is, a natural sweetener, just like sugar beets and sugarcane.”
SOFT DRINK MAKERS SIGNING ON
Since the FDA’s approval of its use, major American beverage makers have trademarked their own brands of stevia-based sweeteners and retailed them.
Truvia, a version produced by Coca-Cola Co., can be found in Vitaminwater Zero and Tillamook Light Yogurt. PepsiCo Inc. has partnered with PureCircle, owned by the Whole Earth Sweetener Company, to produce a stevia sugar substitute called Pure Via.
Regardless of regulatory red tape, the true test of stevia’s success in the consumer market will be one of taste.
Francis said taste perceptions of stevia vary wildly. Its flavor is comparable to sugar, but not quite the same, he said.
One thing he believes consumers will find as they buy stevia-sweetened products is no matter how similar to real sugar the additive tastes, they will grow accustomed to it, much like those who enjoy diet sodas have grown accustomed to artificial sweeteners.
“This will be true of stevia extracts,” Francis said. “Once consumers get to know the great taste and all natural aspects of stevia, it will take its place as a widely used and enjoyed ingredient.”