So far this year Mintel's Global New Products Database has tracked 279 stevia-based product launches in Europe.
PureCircle, the world's largest supplier of stevia, is pleased with this.
The company's Jason Hecker, vice president global marketing and innovation, said: "There has been a strong start for stevia in Europe, with many launches in drinks, including ready-to-drink teas, flavoured waters, juices and carbonated soft drinks. We are seeing broadening category development with launches of chocolate milks, yogurts, sauces, jams/jellies and ketchups."
On the other hand, Univar, which distributes Wild's Sunwin stevia products in Europe, was expecting food manufacturers to move more quickly when it came to incorporating the new sweetener into their recipes.
"We were thinking it would be like a big bang, with lots of marketing campaigns, five or six products in each country. That didn't happen," said Jo Lemmens, business development manager food Europe, Middle East and Africa.
Part of the problem, suggests aspartame supplier Ajinomoto, is that demand for stevia has been over-hyped and too many suppliers are vying for a slice of pie.
A spokeswoman for the firm also pointed out that table-top sweeteners had been the biggest category for stevia introductions in Europe.
"What surprised us was just how many table-top products appeared after stevia was approved," she said. "Everyone remotely involved in table-top seemed to launch a product."
Initially, she said retailers appeared to be willing to accommodate all these products. Now, however, she says the selection has narrowed, prices have been slashed and Truvia appears to be emerging as the leading stevia table-top sweetener.
Waiting for others
As a distributor rather than a manufacturer, Univar works with small- and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) as well as multinationals. Lemmens believes own-label manufacturers and SMEs have been waiting to take their lead on stevia from the big brand owners and says that lead hasn't come.
Cargill, owner of the Truvia brand, agrees that in the beverage category many smaller and own-label brands are waiting for launches from the majors. However, John Fry, consultant for the company, points out that "it is early days for stevia as a sweetener" and that 'some global brands have plans for wider distribution of stevia-based products later this year'.
One such brand is likely to be Coca-Cola. Some time ago, it confirmed it would be using stevia in addition to its existing sweeteners. As yet the only evidence of this has been in France, where Sprite, Nestea and Fanta now contain a mixture of Truvia and sugar, reducing the drinks' calorie count and sugar content by 30%. With regard to its plans to introduce stevia-sweetened drinks in Europe's largest soft drinks market the UK Coca-Cola spokeswoman Laura Misselbrook said: "We are not making an announcement on this until later in the year."
Nevertheless, there has been some activity from the multinationals. Danone has introduced stevia-sweetened versions of its signature yogurts Ale Owoc and DanVia in Poland and Austria. Unilever has reduced the sugar content of its Lipton Green Tea by 30% by building stevia into the recipe and has launched new versions of its Amora, Hellman's and Knorr and Calve ketchups across Europe. In the UK, PepsiCo relaunched its SoBe V Water as a zero sugar beverage.
Univar reckons the restricted registration for stevia and the cost of the sweetener is deterring some firms from formulating with stevia.
"Stevia is more expensive than the artificial high-intensity sweeteners," said Lemmens. "Price-wise, it's more on a par with sugar. The problem is, if you take sugar out of, say, a chocolate bar, and replace it with stevia, you need to add polyols for bulk, and the recipe ends up costing more."
In addition, according to Slovenia-based Vitiva, which markets stevia under the Sweet'nVit brand, stevia's taste is still a problem for some firms.
"Sensorial drawbacks typical of stevia, such as bitterness and liquorice off-taste, are major obstacles to the development of stevia as an alternative to aspartame in most categories," said Thierry Gay, vice president, natural food enhancement systems. "At Vitiva we are working on developing different stevia extracts not only focused on high reb A, but having a more balanced composition among the various steviol glycosides."
David Jago, Mintel's director of insight and innovation, thinks stevia's taste issue could be the reason why the majority of introductions have been new products rather than reformulations.
"A lot of activity has been in new products because many companies are wary of reformulating with stevia and risking the taste," he said.
As a result, other high-intensity sweeteners don't appear to be losing market share to stevia. Ajinomoto confirms that in soft drinks, where aspartame has historically been the leading sweetener, the market for aspartame is "steady to increasing" and "stevia's impact is negligible".
That said, Cargill points out that there have been some reformulations where existing high-potency sweeteners have been eliminated in favour of stevia. French producer Teisseire has removed cyclamate from a drink sweetened with a three-way acesulfame-K / sucralose / cyclamate blend in favour of stevia, so that it is now acesulfame-K / sucralose / steviol glycosides.
The taste issue could also explain why most development activity is taking place in the reduced-calorie rather than the zero-calorie arena.
Del Monte, for example, has just launched its new Naturally Light low-calorie range, which uses stevia and is claimed to contain only half the sugar and calories of standard juice and juice drinks.
"Stevia is most widely being used with sugar it's all about reduction not 0% sugar, and that helps get around the taste issue," said Jago. "For the most part though, these reduced sugar, stevia-sweetened products are not being pushed as mid-calorie."
Brand owners may be trying to distance themselves from the mid-calorie concept, which has fallen flat in the past.
Indeed, rather than seeing an emergence of a mid-calorie segment, PureCircle says it is witnessing a trend towards the redefinition of regular.
"In products from ketchup to carbonated soft drinks, stevia-sweetened products are launching with 25–50% reduction in sugar with real success not as diet products, but at parity taste to the full sugar gold standard," observed Hecker.
While most product launches to date have used stevia in conjunction with sugar, there are some potential benefits to combining it with other sweeteners, according to Rachel Wilson, principal technical adviser at Leatherhead.
"Steviol glycosides are synergistic for sweetness with cyclamate and aspartame and have also been shown to enhance fruit flavours. So they have been readily embraced by the soft drinks industry," she explained. "In addition there is some synergy with bulk sweeteners such as the polyol erythritol, where a flavour profile close to sugar is achieved when compared with steviol glycosides alone. This may be utilised in some application areas, although polyols are not permitted in soft drinks."
Sugar-free confectionery offers opportunities for synergies with polyols, and is also showing promise. Cavalier's no-sugar-added chocolate is arguably one of the biggest success stories in stevia-sweetened confectionery. Other examples include: no-sugar-added chocolate from Spanish firm Torras, which is sweetened with Cargill's Zerose erythritol and Truvia stevia leaf extract, and, in Germany, Haribo has launched Stevi-Lakritz containing Cargill's Maltitex maltitol and Truvia stevia leaf extract.
Fry's predictions are for more activity in table-top, yogurts and sugar-free confectionery.
"We believe we'll see yet more development in table-top, which has clearly responded to quite heavy advertising by major brands seeking consumer awareness. Sugar-free confectionery seems a logical category, as well as more yogurts sweetened with stevia," he said.