Growing industry:  Stevia plants thrive in sunny, warm conditions. Stevia is grown in countries such as Paraguay, Argentina, Colombia, Kenya, China and the US. Picture: SUPPLIED
Growing industry: Stevia plants thrive in sunny, warm conditions. Stevia is grown in countries such as Paraguay, Argentina, Colombia, Kenya, China and the US. Picture: SUPPLIED

Over the past decade, a little-known herb 200 times sweeter than sugar has become a $4bn global industry, showing up in everything from Coca-Cola to Heinz tomato sauce. Not a bad start for a product that many people still think has a bitter aftertaste.

The stevia plant, which can be processed into a zero-calorie sweetener, has taken off as a sugar alternative. Consumption tripled from 2011 to 2016, according to Euromonitor International.

While it’s still a small part of sweetener sales, companies such as Cargill and ED&F Man Holdings are investing more money in it — including to improve the taste.

"This is a market that has huge growth potential," says Jonathan Hugh, head of the agri-industrial division at London-based commodity trader ED&F Man, which has a stake in the stevia-based Unavoo Sweetener. "We see a lot of investment opportunities."

Finding a low-calorie sugar substitute that doesn’t alter the taste of iconic brands has been a longtime quest in the food industry, especially with a global obesity epidemic and rising diabetes rates. Over the years, that has led to artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, sucralose and xylitol. But many consumers report unpleasant side effects from those products or worry about ingesting chemical additives.

Stevia, which is often marketed as a natural sweetener because it is derived from plant extracts, has almost no calories and a glycaemic index of zero, which means it can be consumed by diabetics.

Named after a Spanish botanist, stevia is a member of the sunflower family of plants and has been grown in South America for hundreds of years. It didn’t get much attention until 2008, when Minneapolis-based Cargill, one of the world’s largest agricultural companies, introduced its stevia-based Truvia sweetener in the US.

Demand accelerated after that, including in 2011, when the EU approved stevia use in food. It’s now found in salad dressings, chewing gum and even face wipes for babies.

The plants, which thrive in sunny, warm conditions, are now grown in countries such as Paraguay, Kenya, China, the US, Vietnam, India, Argentina and Colombia.

More than 10,000 stevia-containing food and drink products have been added in the past five years, with more than 70% being introduced in the past three years, says Pure Circle, a stevia maker that is based in Malaysia.

In the UK, new products with stevia almost tripled in the four years to 2016, according to Mintel, a London-based researcher. It’s mostly used in soft drinks, but increasingly found in sauces, tomato sauce, snack bars, popcorn and toothpaste, says David Jago, Mintel’s director of innovation and insight.

Nestle, the world’s biggest food company, is using stevia in fruit juice in Brazil, coffee mixes in South Korea and in its Nestea brand iced tea.

Lindt & Spruengli, the biggest maker of premium chocolates, says its Russell Stover unit will introduce stevia-sweetened chocolate in the US later in 2017.

Coca-Cola and Pepsi are adding it to diet beverages.

To be sure, sugar remains the king of the sweeteners with about 83% of the total market, says agricultural consultant LMC International. And stevia still faces some difficulty with consumers, partly because it has a bitter aftertaste in many forms, they say.

While demand continues to grow, the gains have slowed drastically since 2012, rising 2.1% in 2016, to 1,038 tonnes, according to Euromonitor data.

"Taste has been an issue, meaning manufacturers have had to combine it with sugars to try and mask off-notes," says John George, an ingredients analyst at Euromonitor International.

"The anticipated revolution has not quite happened."

Improving the taste could help to revive growth rates, and producers are testing new formulations, George says.

In 2018, Cargill plans to introduce its next-generation stevia, called EverSweet, which the company says is easier to make in large quantities and doesn’t have any hint of liquorice flavouring.

ED&F Man plans a new product in 2017 that it says is "virtually indistinguishable" from sugar. Archer-Daniels-Midland, one of the biggest producers of high-fructose maize syrup, is experimenting with improvements to its Sweetright brand.

Stevia may be the industry’s best chance so far to cut back on sugar, from which consumers have been slowly turning away.

"There is this war on sugar waging, so stevia is in a good place," says Sara Girardello, head of high-intensity sweetener research at LMC International in Oxford. "Everybody is in it now," she says.

Bloomberg

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