It has been nearly a year since EU approval of steviol glycosides – the sweet components of the stevia leaf – and the number of new product launches containing them in the region has surged to more than 300 so far this year, from just 50 in 2010. Back then, France was the only market in the bloc that allowed the sale of stevia-sweetened products, taking advantage of a two-year window for temporary approval, prior to the EU-wide allowance.
However, even though food and drink companies are embracing the sweetener, the picture is somewhat mixed for consumers, according to strategic insights manager at Leatherhead Food Research Matt Incles.
Incles says that although manufacturers have been playing up stevia as a way to cut calories naturally in many formulations, consumers are not exactly clamouring for stevia-sweetened foods and drinks.
“Consumers aren’t necessarily demanding stevia in their products but they are looking for something that is natural and something that is ultimately a lower calorie product,” he told FoodNavigator.
“Stevia is not exactly the most natural sounding product. In consumers’ minds, ‘steviol glycosides’ doesn’t sound like the nicest ingredient on the list, and might not sound very natural – even though it is.”
However, Incles added that consumer perception of stevia has been generally positive, precisely because it does allow lower calorie products that don’t contain artificial sweeteners.
“They don’t necessarily want to see more of it in their products, but they also don’t want to see far less of it,” he said.
According to Leatherhead’s own research, just 3% of consumers say they would like to see more stevia in products – while 9% say they would like to see less. To put this in the context of other sweeteners, 62% of consumers say they would like to see less of artificial sweeteners, while 2% say they would like to see more, and 52% would like to see less sugar.
“Anything that is described as artificial, consumers tend to react against,” Incles said. “…You hear people say they would rather have fat and sugar because it is natural. I don’t think stevia is going to reverse these trends but it is the best of both worlds. It is natural and it is low calorie. That is its major benefit – but it depends on whether consumers perceive it that way.”
Natural or not?
Consumer perception of stevia’s naturalness may also take a hit from current regulatory discussion, which suggests steviol glycosides are not technically natural because they are extracted from the stevia leaf.
EU food industry trade group FoodDrinkEurope has issued guidance for food manufacturers, advising use of ‘from a natural source’ as a descriptor. Up to nine different versions of the phrase are thought to be under discussion, including 'steviol glycosides are present in the leaves of the stevia plant' and 'with extract of the stevia plant', with steviol glycosides referred to by means of an asterix.
However, without a strict definition of the term ‘natural’ in EU additive regulations, ‘from a natural source’ is likely to be adopted by industry, according to Leatherhead .