We asked Thorrold if he welcomed the spotlight stevia shone on fruit- and plant-based sweeteners, or whether he saw the stevia industry’s marketing muscle as a hindrance to uptake for monk fruit, or luo han guo (LHG), as it is also known?
“Stevia has certainly helped monk fruit by raising consumer awareness of natural sweeteners. While monk fruit and stevia are competing for market share of the natural sweetener space, the two ingredients are complementary and we are seeing a lot of interest in blending monk fruit with stevia to get a better tasting product than you can get with stevia alone,” he says.
“Zevia’s reformulation earlier this year to include monk fruit [alongside stevia] is a good example of this. Overall I think the fact that formulators have more than one ingredient in the tool kit for natural sweeteners is good for everyone.”
Thorrold insists that, used in beverages at levels from 50ppm-500ppm, monk fruit has characteristics stevia doesn’t possess; there’s no doubt the ingredient’s popularity is increasing – Mintel told us in May 2013 that launches of food and drink using LHG had tripled over the previous five years.
Biovittoria is one of only two Generally Recognised as Safe (GRAS) suppliers of LHG in the States (Guilin LAYN Natural Ingredients Corp is the other), and the company has a global distribution and marketing agreement with Tate & Lyle.
Monk fruit provides 'bitter masking', and comes in juice form
“Monk fruit provides bitter masking which makes it a very suitable choice for beverages that have some unwanted bitter characteristics,” Thorrold says.
“Monk fruit is also available in a juice form (as well as a powder extract) so companies that are looking to reduce sugar with a fruit juice ingredient can do that with monk fruit but not with stevia,” he adds.
Cost has always been one bugbear for monk fruit – so is cost-in-use improving as supply chains are consolidated and suppliers, and also supplies, increase?
“Monk fruit (like most fruit-sourced ingredients) is going to have a higher cost in use than commodity sweeteners like sugar and stevia and we expect this to remain the case for the foreseeable future,” Thorrold says.
Nonetheless, for the moment in Europe at least it is academic, as monk fruit is not approved for use as an ingredient in any food category – Thorrold says Biovittoria is working on EU approval for monk fruit but says that it is "still a few years away".
Ocean Spray Pact and Chobani Simply 100
In the US, at least, progress has been made, in what Thorrold tells us is the world’s largest market for processed monk fruit extract: “Ocean Spray has just launched a product called Pact cranberry extract water that uses monk fruit and stevia. Another high-profile product using monk fruit and stevia is Chobani’s Simply 100 calorie line of Greek yogurts.”
Thorrold agrees that consumer understanding has been easier to develop in Southeast Asia – and China, the largest market for traditional consumption of monk fruit – where the ingredient originates.
“It definitely helps that there is an established history of use and you can buy dried monk fruit in Chinese supermarkets all over the world. People get that monk fruit is a real food which is positive for consumer acceptance,” he says.
“Currently the USA is the largest market for processed monk fruit extract while China remains the largest market for traditional consumption of monk fruit," Thorrold adds.