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Special Edition: Stevia

Is a re-assessment of EU stevia usage on the cards?

By Jane Byrne , 17-Nov-2011
Last updated on 17-Nov-2011 at 14:35 GMT

EFSA may reassess proposed use levels for stevia in EU
EFSA may reassess proposed use levels for stevia in EU

Post-market monitoring of stevia use levels in food and drink products could see the European Commission broaden the current authorised food categories, claims a stevia trade body.

In a special edition on the sweetener following this week’s EU regulatory backing for use of steviol glycosides in food and drink products in the EU, we look at the how the legislation will impact stevia usage in the EU market and look at trends elsewhere.

The sweetener, to be identified as E960 or sweetener steviol glycosides in the ingredients list, will be able to be used in a range of foodstuffs and beverage products in the EU from 2 December 2011.

Post-market review

The new regulation on stevia, published on 12 November in the Official Journal of the EU, includes the proviso that Commission 'might' ask the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) ‘when necessary’ to perform a new exposure assessment for the sweetener, taking into account the ‘real uses’ of steviol glycosides in the different subcategories of foods.

The food and drinks industry will be required to compile data on usage levels and send it to EFSA.

Maria Teresa Scardigli, executive director of the International Stevia Council, told this publication that this post-market ‘real usage’ assessment is likely to result in the Commission "extending the use of stevia into additional food groups."

She argues that the intake assessment methods for proposed stevia use levels that EFSA relied on were “very conservative” and based on the assumption that all food and beverages would contain stevia extracts at the maximum use level for soft drinks.

“This will simply not be the case - we have not seen this happen with other high intensity sweeteners approved for use in the EU,” said Scardigli.

Food groups dropped

EFSA set an Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) level for stevia at 4mg/kg bodyweight, and claimed that the ADI is likely to be exceeded by adults and children if the maximum levels are used. The agency found that soft drinks would be the main source of steviol glycosides intake for all population groups.

To address EFSA’s concerns, applicants seeking approval for stevia in the EU submitted revised proposed use levels for food and beverages, with the result that, in January 2011, licensing applications were withdrawn for some 15 food groups including the ‘desserts and other products’ category.

The EU regulation currently allows for stevia to be used in specific levels in a range of energy-reduced or with no added sugar foods such as flavoured fermented milk products, cocoa and chocolate products, edible ices, fruit and vegetable compotes and jams and marmalades, chewing gum, soups and broths, and soft drinks.

The plant extract can also be used in table top sweeteners, food supplements, alcoholic drinks including spirits (with less than 15 % of alcohol and mixtures of alcoholic drinks with non-alcoholic drinks) and alcohol-free beer.

Labelling limitations

The term natural can be used on labelling on foods and beverages using stevia in the US as long as it is not included in the ingredients list - this factor has already helped the product gain market share there.

However, in the EU, the use of the term ‘natural’ in food labelling very much depends on legislation in individual member states, so brand owners will have to interpret national regulations within the EU before employing such marketing tactics. Scardigli said that the International Stevia Council is aiming to provide detailed guidance in this regard.

Proposed wording

The Council, she continued, wrote to the Commission in May this year with the proposal that the wording ‘stevia leaf extract’ could also be used in the ingredients lists on food and drinks in addition to the E-number or the reference ‘sweetener steviol glycosides’ but she said the request was turned down by the Standing Committee.

"The Commission and the Standing Committee had already reached an agreement on the labelling when we sent our proposal and they did not want to re-open the discussion, which would have possibly delayed the entire approval process of steviol glycosides in the EU," said Scardigli.

She argues that such wording would have implied a natural source for the ingredient and would have helped with awareness raising initiatives around stevia with European consumers who want clean labelling.

"However, it is our understanding that, beyond the nutrition facts box, companies may be able to go into more detail about steviol glycosides being plant-based for example. Ultimately, it comes down to a commercial decision for each manufacturer, taking into account labelling costs and modifications required for marketing products in the various member states,” added Scardigli.

Consumer confusion

But, Diana Cowland, health and wellness analyst at Euromonitor International, concludes that consumer confusion still exists over the meaning of a ‘natural’ sweetener, despite stevia-based products being promoted on that platform in the US and Asia.

However, such confusion has not been overtly detrimental to sales, it would appear, with stevia-sweetened drinks finding success in several developed markets. Cowland predicts these will drive much of the future growth in zero-calorie soft drinks.

Impact on EU innovation

Stevia is likely to have a large impact on innovation in the EU,” forecasts the health and wellness food and drink specialist, citing the growing obesity levels in the bloc.

The sweetener, continued Cowland, is an active weight management ingredient. “Alongside this, it has a low glycaemic index (it is thought to have a GI of 0) which means that it can target the ever-growing type II diabetic population,” she added.

Beverage sector dominates

There have been a number of successful products using the plant extract, said the market researcher, with manufacturers targeting a number of different age groups and health-related concerns, but it is the beverage sector that accounts for the greater percentage of stevia-based innovation.

“I would expect to see a rise in packaged food launches containing stevia in the near future as ingredient manufacturers work to remove the bitterness – a negative side effect,” added Cowland.

Enjoying particular success within the soft drinks industry, stevia-based sweeteners are now being used by both Coca-Cola and PepsiCo.

Stevia-based soft drinks

Tropicana’s Trop50, using stevia, claims to contain 50% less sugar and calories compared to other fruit nectars (25-99% fruit juice). It has shown a strong increase of 88% in sales in the US since it launched in 2009, said the Euromonitor analyst.

SoBe Life by Pepsi Cola Panamericana Perú SRL uses stevia, while Sprite Green and vitaminwater zero were also launched in the US in 2010 as extensions of major brands, also leveraging the zero-calorie stevia element.

As might be expected given the regulatory situation, the US represents one of the world’s largest markets for stevia-based sweeteners, accounting for over 80% of the global Reb-A market, for example.

The plant extract has already established itself as a significant sweetener in the French market, accounting for 4.5 per cent of new products globally using the sweetener, according to Mintel.

In France, stevia sweeteners with a high purity of the steviol glycoside Reb A were granted a two-year approval window in September 2009 in advance of full EU approval.

But the beverage industry in France though is currently the biggest user. Coca-Cola has used stevia in its Fanta Still product there and leading juice maker Joker has added the sweetener to its Vital nectar.

However, the dairy industry in France has also shown significant interest in stevia; Danone began using the ingredient in its Taillefine yoghurts in July last year, advertising the fact prominently on the pack.

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