"With improved yields there could be great success in mass stevia production for mainstream sweeteners, and with traditional technology it's possible," says Dr Ursula Wölwer-Rieck from the department of bioanalytics and food chemistry at the Friedrich-Wilhelms University in Germany.
Companies such as PureCircle which manufactures leaf-extracted stevia products also say it will be possible.“The idea that traditional techniques are a barrier and can’t be scaled up is simply not true,” said Faith Son, vice president of marketing and innovation.“For several years [we have been] selling significant volumes of several stevia leaf extract ingredients using traditional techniques that are not only fully scaled-up from our stevia plant-based supply chain and innovation pipeline, but are (…) have been developed more quickly than non-leaf based technologies.”
In the early 2000s the content of glycosides Reb A in stevia leaf was less than 1.5% of dry leaf weight but today is over 10%, said Son – and this has been achieved through improvements in traditional farming methods.
Reb A is less sought-after than Reb M and Reb D because it has a bitter, liquorice-like aftertaste, but through its Stevia Agronomy Program, PureCircle says it is also growing hundreds of hectares of stevia leaf with a 20-fold increase in Reb M and Reb D content.
Meanwhile, Canadian company GLG has set a target of 15% Reb M and Reb D in dry weight stevia through traditional breeding techniques, and it says this can be done in less than ten years.
Natural? Depends where you are
According to Wölwer-Rieck, non-extracted methods of producing stevia - whether enzymatically or through GM fermentation such as Cargill’s EverSweet - are at odds with consumer ideas of ‘natural’.
“Enzymatic stevia – a natural claim is very difficult question because the term has not been defined, not in the US nor in the EU. [But] it seems that for most consumers GM and natural is a contradiction,” she told FoodNavigator.
Speaking at the FENS European Nutrition Conference in Berlin last month, Wölwer-Rieck concluded that stevia extracted from the leaf should be called a natural sweetener.
But the term natural is a bit of a grey area. Priscilla Samuel, director of the Global Stevia Institute (GSI), said that while food authorities in some countries, such as Korea and Indonesia, had given a definition to the claim ‘natural’, this was not the case in the USA or Europe – but American and European consumers view stevia as a natural sweetener, she said.
This is why for Samuel it is crucial to clearly label the origin of stevia. “The GSI welcomes new versions of glycosides – but the important thing is for consumers to know where it comes from and where it was made,” she said.
As the sugar backlash continues with calls for taxes to curb consumption gaining traction, Mintel data shows that stevia’s big pulling power is its perceived healthiness – but it says more work is needed to raise its profile. Over one quarter (28%) of Germans consider stevia to be healthy “[A] lack of familiarity with stevia indicates that more educational efforts are required from the German food and drink industry to drive usage, which is then set to present considerable future opportunities for the stevia market," said senior food and drink German analyst Katya Witham.