Today, the market is worth “closer to $200-300m”, and expectations are more realistic, says the CEO of stevia expert Sweet Green Fields.
But recent breakthroughs mean the true potential of the market “can finally be unlocked”, predicted Dean Francis, who was speaking to FoodNavigator-USA after merging with Sweet Green Fields' long-time supplier Zhejiang Green World through natural ingredients specialist EPC Natural Products.
The new (privately-held) company - Sweet Green Fields Co., Ltd. – is one of the largest, privately held, fully-integrated stevia ingredient companies in the world, claimed Francis: “It was definitely a case of the Wild Wild West in the early days. People were calling stevia the Holy Grail of all sweeteners, a lot of organizations jumped in, and there was an overabundance of stevia supply both in terms of leaf and capacity.
“But over the past seven years there has been a huge fallout and consolidation to the point that there is now a handful of key suppliers and we are one of them. We are definitely in the top five and probably closer to the third position volume-wise. We’re selling into Latin America, Europe and North America and our partners have also been focused on the Asian markets, so we have global reach.”
“We are also moving forward [in terms of growing stevia plants] in areas such as Vietnam, Kenya, Europe, and Brazil, not just China and the US.”
‘There was some very mediocre-tasting stevia out there’
So where does the stevia industry stand today?
He added: “The fundamental challenge of stevia, which was underestimated, has always been taste.
“That’s why the industry is now a $200-300m dollar business when many people thought that by now it would be well over a billion. A lot of manufacturers tried stevia in the past, and were not happy, because there was some very mediocre-tasting stevia out there.
“But my message is that it’s time to try it again as there is a whole new generation of stevia products there that are significantly better than what was on offer even two years ago.
"I think stevia will take off more in the next five years than it has in the previous seven.”
"The fundamental challenge of stevia, which was underestimated, has always been taste... That’s why the industry is now a $200-300m dollar business when many people through that by now it would be well over a billion." Dean Francis, CEO, Sweet Green Fields Co Ltd
He explained: “In our case, some of it [the progress] has come from playing with different trace glycosides [Reb D, Reb M etc] and some from a particular modification pathway. There are enzymatic products out there on the market from us and our competitors that are FEMA GRAS flavors and they are definitely a great part of the toolbox now as well.”
There is also an acceptance that aside from monk fruit, there are not actually many options in the natural sweeteners space aside from stevia that are commercially viable right now, and those in it for the long haul are 100% committed to ensuring that stevia finally delivers on its early promise, he added: “The reality is that there are not that many cost-effective alternatives.”
Fermentation-derived steviol glycosides: ‘To call it stevia is a stretch there is no leaf involved whatsoever’
So what does he make of the new fermentation-derived steviol glycosides - spearheaded Cargill and Evolva - which are made via a genetically engineered baker’s yeast that converts sugars into the better-tasting steviol glycosides Reb D +M via a fermentation process?
The technology is exciting he said, acknowledging that it could be a game-changer when it comes to the economics of producing commercial quantities of some of the minor glycosides in the stevia leaf.
However, the #1 reason that food and beverage manufacturers started experimenting with stevia in the first place was precisely due to its ‘natural’ credentials (it’s from a leaf), he observed, "so there is therefore a lot of discussion" within as well as beyond the industry over how best to define this next generation of products from a labeling and marketing perspective, he said.
“I am not against genetic engineering technologies at all, but to call it [fermentation-derived steviol glycosides] ‘stevia’ is a stretch when there is no leaf involved with it whatsoever, and genetic modification is involved. It’s just an issue of transparency [something Cargill itself recognizes, as it also has a stevia leaf business to protect].”
In future, he said, consumers may have to look out for ‘stevia leaf extract’ on the label in order to be sure the sweetener is from the stevia leaf rather than the fermentation of sugars.
Sweet Green Fields has patented a 'fast precipitation' process for extracting the steviol glycoside Reb-A. The process, which SGF claims is up to 50% faster than standard techniques, delivers very high purity levels using water and ethanol (rather than methanol or wood alcohol). SGF’s germplasm inventory also includes a variety of plants yielding high total glycoside levels, including Reb A (Rebaudioside A) plants with 80-90% Reb A content, 20% higher than the industry standard, claims the firm.