At a recent event at the offices of stevia manufacturer PureCircle, a stevia manufacturer, Faith Son, vice president of global marketing and innovation, said research shows the most common concern about stevia is not what it’s made from or what it is, but the taste.
“That’s the issue that comes up most commonly,” she said. “I think most of that has to do with legacy products that have come up in the past. And if you have a bad experience with something…”
Son also believes there are high expectations from consumers. While many people are open to the fact that stevia is not the same product as sugar, there is still an expectation for it to have a pleasant, sweet taste. This is what PureCircle is innovating in; as the brand and sector are growing, the company is working on creating products that taste better.
“We feel good that it’s hit mainstream awareness levels. From a perception and rawness standpoint, it’s at the same standpoint as coconut sugar and agave,” Son said. “We kind of feel like we’re in the right camp.”
Stevia’s tipping point?
Son believes stevia has come to a tipping point. She highlighted stats from Mintel which show that the number of products launched in the past five years that feature stevia has risen by 40%. The snacks category has been the largest jumping point with 477 launches, while beverages have seen 798 launches featuring stevia.
Dairy is also rather high with 223 new product launches featuring stevia in 2015 alone.
The company saw a 26% revenue growth from fiscal year 2014 ($101m) to 2015 ($127m), Son said. Approximately 50% of the company’s sales are in North America, with 20% in Latin America, 20% in APAC and 10% in Europe.
It’s an exciting time for the industry, Son believes, as they have started to produce products for big name companies, such as PepsiCo, Dr Pepper-Snapple and Coca-Cola. Son said stevia is “very commonly used” for sugar reduction in products. Consumers have realized that there are no simple answers, she said, and completely avoiding a single product (i.e. sugar) won’t last forever.
Refining the flavor of stevia
PureCircle recently launched its Zeta Family line for low- or no-calorie products and has other new innovations launching in the near future. Son said they have moved beyond Rebaudioside A, or Reb A, the formula most associate with stevia, and now have 18 different stevia products in the company’s line.
“It’s a real pivotal point for the company,” she said. “We’re looking to make that next taste breakthrough and scale that next taste breakthrough.”
PureCircle has discovered more than 40 glycosides in the stevia leaf. The company’s research and development team is in the process of creating and testing each to try to get the closest possible match to sugar. These additional glycoside discoveries make the economics more favorable moving into the future, Son said.
John Martin, PureCircle’s global director of technical development and innovation, said much of the complication of these new discoveries lies in the complexities in sensory attributes, sweetening power and how much of its individual content is in the leaf itself.
In an attempt to find the perfectly flavored glycoside, he said PureCircle is using sugar as the “gold standard” by testing multiple different attributes in a sensory lab. This lab measures multiple aspects of stevia’s flavor profile, such as sweetness onset, linger, quality, rounded sweetness and bitterness.
“We’re not just doing a simple tasting of the product; we’re kind of taking it a step further,” Martin said. “We’re adding a lot more science and technology to [the process].”
With all of this research now in-house, Martin and the research and development team are able to look at applications for many different glycogens from stevia.
Whether PureCircle will find the next sugar within the stevia leaf remains to be seen, but the team exudes confidence when it comes to the future of the sweetener.