Special edition: Opportunities in food

Freedonia: Stevia's potential in an imperfect sweetener market

By Mike Richardson, The Freedonia Group

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Stevia, Soft drink, Sweeteners

No sweetener currently available on the market has proven to be
a fully satisfactory replacement for sugar, but the emergence of
stevia could rekindle hope, according to Freedonia. The analyst
examines the sweetener market in the second of a series of
exclusive articles contributed to FoodNavigator-USA.com by global
market research firms.

The quest for the perfect sweetener - clean sweet flavor with no off-taste, non-caloric, and no bad health effects - remains unresolved. Originally, the main market for alternative sweeteners was in foods and beverages for diabetics. When consumers became more calorie-conscious in the 1960s and 1970s, they turned to diet soft drinks and tabletop sweetener products featuring sweeteners like saccharin and cyclamate. Eventually, health concerns about these ingredients cast a pall over their market prospects. Cyclamate​ was removed from the US market in 1969 and products containing saccharin​ were required to carry an ominous label between 1977 and 2000. In the intervening years, a number of other high-intensity sweetener products emerged, following FDA approval: aspartame​ in 1981, acesulfame potassium​ (or Ace-K) in 1988, sucralose​ in 1998 and neotame​ in 2002. Currently, alitame​ is pending FDA approval and cyclamate is pending re-approval. Aspartame, the sweetener in Equal and NutraSweet, became the leader in the large diet soft drink market, and established a presence in the tabletop sweetener market. Ace-K's main outlet is also in diet soft drinks, where it is often paired with aspartame in a blend that negates the two products' off-tastes and produces a synergistic effect. Sucralose, the sweetener in Splenda, quickly became the leading tabletop sweetener following its introduction. Additionally, polyols​ (or sugar alcohols) such as sorbitol, xylitol, mannitol and maltitol have found use in a variety of foods, especially candy, gum and mints. However, none of these products have proven to be a fully satisfactory replacement for sugar. Polyols have been very successful in candy, mints and gum, but are typically less sweet than sugar and often cause difficulties with product formulations. Although some polyols can boast that they help prevent tooth decay, others have a laxative effect sufficient to warrant a warning label. High-intensity sweeteners generally fail to meet sugar's flavor profile in carbonated soft drinks, although some have been successful as a sweetener for coffee and tea. Moreover, there are numerous concerns about the safety of high-intensity sweeteners. Although the products' manufacturers and the FDA maintain that they are safe, there is no shortage of flag waving about the threats posed by these sweeteners, ranging from carefully reasoned arguments and references to scientific studies, to sensationalistic conspiratorial ranting. Regardless of tone, producers and users of these ingredients cannot overlook the fact that attention of this sort can affect sales. As a result, there has been considerable interest in new products, many of which are positioned as 'alternatives to the alternatives' - sweeteners with little or no carbohydrate content, little or no glycemic impact and unburdened by chemical names of which so many consumers are wary. Stevia and agave nectar are among the products offering the brightest prospects. Neither is the long-lost perfect replacement for sugar, but both offer a number of attractive features. Agave nectar​ has found use as a tabletop sweetener and in New Age beverages such as natural sports drinks. It has a low glycemic index and is sweeter than sucrose, but is of roughly equal caloric value, making it an attractive sugar alternative in many settings, but less so in others. Stevia​, made from a plant native to Paraguay but now grown in many regions, is perhaps the product upon which more recent hopes have been placed. It is 250-300 times sweeter than sugar, comparable to high-intensity sweetener products. Also, it is effectively non-caloric, making it an attractive ingredient for diet foods and beverages. Stevia is already used extensively as a sweetener in many countries, including Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and many South American nations. But stevia is not without drawbacks of its own. These drawbacks, and how quickly and easily they might be overcome, will hold the key to market success for stevia and its derivatives. The first is regulatory: stevia is not currently approved for use as a food additive in the US. Although there are stevia products on the market, such as SweetLeaf and OnlySweet, they must be labeled as dietary supplements. Past attempts to gain FDA approval have failed due to health concerns and issues with consistency of supply. The second is economic: stevia products are currently more expensive than other high-intensity sweetener products. Presumably, increased production levels would address that; but such increases are unlikely without gaining regulatory approval to market stevia as a food additive. The third is aesthetic: stevia products on the market now have a distinct flavor profile with a pronounced aftertaste which is reminiscent to that of licorice. While stevia has definitely gained a following as an alternative to high-intensity sweeteners, there is no mistaking it for sugar (or Equal or Splenda, for that matter) in its present form. The great current hope for stevia lies with two heavyweights, Coca-Cola and Cargill. Earlier this year, Coca-Cola filed two dozen patents relating to stevia, including uses in baked goods, condiments, candy, dental products, gum, cereal, beverages, pharmaceuticals, tabletop sweeteners and dairy products. The focus is 'rebiana', an extract of the stevia plant. The plan is for Cargill to develop rebiana for food uses, while Coca-Cola will focus on beverage applications. The companies intend to introduce rebiana-enhanced products where stevia is accepted, and in the US and Europe when regulatory requirements are satisfied. The two firms believe that they have a handle on the product consistency issue that has plagued previous efforts to bring stevia to market as a food additive, and that the process by which they make rebiana will deliver a sweet product free from the aftertaste that has prevented it from being a drop-in replacement for other sweeteners. Clearly, stevia has never had the benefit of patrons with the firepower it has now. Even so, the extent to which the FDA agrees with Coca-Cola and Cargill about the safety of stevia, and the extent to which consumers agree about the flavor profile of rebiana, will make it or break it. As companies already know, government approval can be tricky, and consumer palates can be fickle; both are scary prospects when trying launch new products. The Freedonia Group is a leading international business research company, founded in 1985, that publishes more than 100 industry research studies annually. More information about Freedonia's industry studies and other products is available on the company's website,www.freedoniagroup.com​.

Related topics: Sweeteners (intense, bulk, polyols)

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