Regulatory restrictions and lessons learned from other markets are shaping the way food manufacturers are using stevia-derived sweeteners in Europe, according to supplier PureCircle.
It has been a year since stevia extracts were approved for use in foods and beverages in Europe and trends are beginning to emerge.
In an interview with FoodNavigator, PureCircle’s vice president of global marketing and innovation Jason Hecker said that companies were using stevia differently in Europe, taking the formulation and market positioning lessons learned in other markets – particularly the United States – and moving quickly with new product launches. He said there were likely to be more than 1,000 food and drink formulations containing stevia extracts globally by the end of the year, with about half of those in Europe.
“I always predicted that when Europe opened that it would be in not just a couple of categories. You are seeing all the categories all at once, from dairy to confectionery to CSDs [carbonated soft drinks],” he said.
Big brands like Knorr and Felix have introduced stevia-sweetened ketchups, which Hecker says are intended to appeal to parents looking for reduced sugar products without artificial ingredients.
“You are seeing categories where it wasn’t permissible to go to low calorie with artificial sweeteners,” he said.
Stevia…with artificial sweeteners
However, in other categories, stevia extracts are being used in combination, not only with sugar, but also with artificial sweeteners, as formulators look to combine and optimise different ingredients’ sweetness profiles.
“Some are still trying to get to zero,” Hecker said. “…About 25% of stevia launches are in combination with artificial sweeteners for taste optimisation.”
However, sugar reduction of 30% or even 50% is becoming more common. The Coca-Cola Company has gone this route, adding stevia to some of its most iconic brands. Sprite has been reformulated with stevia for consumers across Europe, providing a 30% sugar and calorie reduction, and Fanta in Turkey has also been reformulated with stevia for a 30% sugar reduction.
“People are looking to reinvent regular products to reduce sugar. When you are looking at regular products, you are not looking at 50% or 100% reductions.”
Regulations steer market direction
Regulation of how the stevia can be used has directed its use in some areas too. For confectionery, products containing high intensity sweeteners – including stevia – must contain no sugar. Despite this restriction, confectionery has been a strong growth area for stevia formulation in Europe, much more so than in other markets.
Meanwhile, labelling requirements for stevia extracts have led to greater discussion with consumers of where stevia comes from. Stevia extracts have to be listed on ingredient lists as ‘steviol glycosides’. It has been suggested that this could prove a barrier to consumer acceptance of its naturalness, but Hecker says the opposite is happening.
“In Europe more than any other market, we are seeing stevia communication, stevia call-out,” he said. “Ironically the regulation about how you can talk about stevia has meant that the leaf has been called out more as a way to communicate natural, whereas in other markets you might just call something ‘all-natural’.”
The European market is expected to account for half of all new global product launches containing stevia in 2012, led by Germany, he added.