Stevia saw some big successes last year, including the relaunch of Sprite in France and Ireland with 30% less sugar following reformulation with the zero-calorie sweetener. The European market was on track to account for about half of all product launches containing stevia extracts last year, according to stevia supplier PureCircle – but while several big brands have backed stevia in Europe, Madden says it has taken longer than expected for widespread market uptake.
“Once France took the view to promote stevia and products were launched there, I think people were saying that lots of products would be launched,” he said.
“No one wanted to rush in. It is not a reluctance for the major brands to launch, but they were just being careful. And there is ongoing concern about clean label and understanding about the product technically.”
Many of the larger companies that have launched products in Europe have drawn on their multinational expertise, especially their R&D experiences in the United States, where stevia extracts were first approved for use in foods and beverages four years ago. But this experience did not translate directly into the European market.
“Consumer tastes within Europe are different even from one country to another,” said Madden. “…Making sure consumers were aware of stevia was a major hurdle.”
As for small and medium-sized businesses, Madden said that 2013 could see more of them collaborating with larger ingredient companies, which have already done a lot of work on optimising the sweetener’s taste profile.
“Since you see the big companies launching products, others will follow suit,” he said. “It’s also important for brand managers and ingredient companies to be able to innovate as much as possible to be able to differentiate themselves.”
Stevia fits well with consumer demand for natural ingredients and it is in this context that many more stevia-sweetened products are likely to appear, according to Madden.
“Natural is a major selling point,” he said, adding that stevia combined with sugar and the growth of the mid-sugar category are also likely to swell the number of product launches containing stevia in the coming year.