EverSweet is the fruit of a partnership between food industry giant Cargill and biotech company Evolva. Produced using a genetically-engineered yeast to convert sugar to steviol glycosides through fermentation, it creates Reb M and Reb D glycosides without the use of stevia.
Best of three?
Stevia’s sweet molecules can be produced in three ways – through an enzymatic process, extracted directly from the plant or fermented. EverSweet is expected to be commercially available in the USA in 2016 and will be rolled out in Europe and other regions in future years. Ideal applications are in beverages, dairy and tabletop sweeteners, says Cargill, and its big selling point is that the glycosides can be produced on a commercial scale – unlike leaf extraction which requires huge amounts of stevia leaf – without the bitter aftertaste that has beset stevia until now.
Fermented stevia has been accused of tarnishing the plant's natural image which is one of its key selling points, but those looking at biotech options argue they are giving consumers and customers more options - the more 'natural' options will still exist.
Last year DSM also announced it was looking to producing stevia through fermentation, and regional president Greg Kesel told our sister publication, FoodNavigatorUSA, that there was a place on the market for all three kinds. “I fully expect all methods to have their benefits. People will want the plant extract, and if stevia really starts being a part of consumer goods and the reduced calorie trend then you’re talking about a massive volume, and you’ll need all of these different methods.”
‘Inspired by Nature’
And this kind of innovation is to be expected, according to the executive director of the International Stevia Council (ISC), Maria Teresa Scardigli, who says that consumer interest in stevia is growing and industry will push market boundaries accordingly. The ISC’s stance is that, as with any ingredient, clear and transparent labelling should be used and claims should not be misleading to consumers.
EverSweet’s slogan in ‘Inspired by nature’ – is that misleading? No, says Cargill because the fermented Reb M and Reb D molecules are identical to the ones produced through extraction. "[That] is why we talk about getting inspiration from nature," says Fabro.
But Thom King, president of Steviva, a company which extracts stevia using water, is not so sure – but with a budget like Cargill’s it doesn't matter anyway, he says. "EverSweet may run into challenges within the all-natural category since it doesn’t contain stevia and is synthesized in a lab. We were considering this technology a couple years ago and found it to be too much of a risk for a company our size. But Cargill has deep pockets and they can overcome consumer perception with big ad budgets.”
Steviva's latest product, CocoSweet is a blend of stevia extract and coconut sugar that is non-GMO and clean-label, the company says.
But Fabro says Cargill is simply letting its customers decide how they want to use the ingredient. “We explain to our customers how our products are made and ultimately it is up to our customers to decide how they will label their products. (...) Most stevia products are positioned as a nice tasting zero calorie sweetener that consumers can feel better about and can be used in many applications. EverSweet fits right in with the same positioning and will be another sweetener option for food and beverage manufacturers who are interested in reaching even deeper sugar reduction levels."
So will the arrival of EverSweet be a game-changer? "Possibly," says Mintel analyst David Turner, “but it depends on a number of variables. It should help taste, however consumers (…) have already come to perceive some taste compromise from stevia. Another variable is increasing R&D in alternative sweeteners - Turner pointed to the arrival of low or zero-calorie sweeteners monk fruit and allulose in non-EU markets which mean that stevia is not the only sweetener in the game.
The regulatory roadblock
But in Europe, Cargill may be up against even bigger barriers than consumer taste preferences.
According to an EFSA spokesperson, if an approved food additive is produced using significantly different methods than those used in the original risk assessment, it must be submitted for revaluation.
The European Commission confirmed that steviol glycosides produced through fermentation are not authorised in the EU.
Cargill says it has completed a self GRAS (Generally recognised as safe) status and plans to notify the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Once it receives a letter of no objection from the FDA it will submit a dossier to EFSA as part of its global regulatory plan.
But even if Cargill’s GM fermented stevia is not a game-changer – or if it doesn’t get past the Commission – the company has other options.
“We [also] have a robust stevia leaf extract business that includes a number of great sweeteners for customers and consumers who prefer that option,” says Fabro.