The arrival of a new player stevia is expected to shake things up when it enters the European sweeteners market, most likely later this year. Like aspartame, sucralose and acesulfame K, stevia blends well with other high intensity and bulk sweeteners.
However, it also presents a threat to other sweeteners, as in regions where it is already approved it has taken a sizeable chunk of the market.
Under the US approval process since stevia achieved Generally Recognised As Safe (GRAS) status in 2008, the market has erupted with hundreds of stevia-sweetened products launching every year.
Univar, which is working with WILD to market and distribute its Sunwin stevia products in Europe, sees no reason why stevia should not have a similar impact in the EU. "We anticipate stevia claiming a significant share of the high intensity sweetener market in the first few years, particularly in the table-top sweetener and beverage segments," says Jo Lemmens, Univar's business development manager, food for Europe Middle East and Africa.
His optimism is shared by Yonatan Brenner, business development representative for ViaSweet stevia in Europe/Israel with Chengdu Wagott Pharmaceuticals predicts stevia will eventually command nearly half of high intensity sweetener sales in Europe.
"Stevia was able to take some 45% of market share for high intensity sweeteners in Japan, over some 20 plus years, and is expected to do the same in the US and Europe, over a similar, long stretch of time," he reasons.
The main reason stevia is expected to make such a splash is its 'naturalness'.
"Stevia is a sweetener created by nature, as is sugar," explains Lars Bo Jørgensen, general manager of NP Sweet, a joint venture between Nordzucker and PureCircle, which was formed to develop and market combinations of stevia and sugar, and market PureCircle's stevia products. "Stevia is extracted from stevia leaves by methods very similar to how sugar is extracted from sugar beet or sugar cane. So stevia is the first commercially viable high intensity, zero calorie sweetener that is able to match the natural image of sugar."
This fits snugly with the consumer trend towards more natural food products, and gives stevia an edge over the synthetic high intensity sweeteners.
"Consumers, and therefore manufacturers, are beginning to distance themselves from such synthetic products," says Lemmens. "Stevia will present a real challenge to existing sweeteners in the market such as aspartame, sucralose and acesulfame K as well as older sweeteners like cyclamate and saccharin. We have seen these kinds of products displaced by stevia in the US market and anticipate similar adoption here."
However, manufacturers of artificial, high intensity sweeteners may find opportunities to create blends with stevia to bring down the cost and mask off-notes.
"Due to stevia's taste profile, which features a slight bitter off-note, it's being introduced mainly in conjunction with existing sweeteners, such as aspartame and fructose to achieve the traditional taste the public is used to," says Brenner.
He adds that in order for food and beverage manufacturers in Europe to adopt stevia, it will have to prove cost-effective. He says that at present this is achieved by blending sweeteners or using flavour essence, but the price of stevia is slowly falling. "When it hits double figures, meaning below $100/kg, percentages of other sweeteners in those blends may go down more to make room for more stevia. But that should take a few more years."
Stevia's off-notes also create welcome work for flavour companies. Symrise has spotted an opportunity here, offering flavour-masking solutions for stevia-sweetened products.
"There are various reasons why you might need masking solutions when working with stevia," explains Christina Witter, corporate communications manager with Symrise. "The sweetness of stevia is very intense and lasts for a long time. Some consumers may consider this a little disturbing; others mention off-notes such as slight bitterness and an impression of liquorice. The intensity of these effects varies from application to application."
Döhler, which has forged a partnership with stevia firm PureCircle, has also observed that the liquorice after-taste is perceived with varying degrees of intensity depending on the product, and says this makes beverage applications its area of speciality particularly complex.
"It has proved difficult to replace the amount of sugar the industry had originally hoped for, up to 10 Brix, since this often significantly affects the sensory properties," says Oliver Hoffmann, head of Döhler group marketing. "When MultiSweet stevia is used, the entire recipe must be adapted in order to achieve a product with the ideal sensory qualities."
Döhler has developed Sweetness Improving Technology (SIT) which it claims allows undesirable flavour parameters to be significantly improved. Using this technology, the German company has conceived a range of stevia-sweetened formulations, from flavoured water, carbonated soft drinks, still drinks and nectars, to desserts and ice creams.
For bulk sweetener suppliers, stevia's arrival represents more of an opportunity than a threat, as Beneo has discovered with its sugar-replacer Isomalt. "Knowing that stevia will need a bulk sweetener to attain a well-balanced and palatable sweetness, we see promising synergies between Isomalt and stevia," says new business development project manager Dr Liv Janvary.
She claims a blend of the two sweeteners results in a system with a sugar-like taste profile, which is not only as sweet as sugar, but also tooth-friendly, making it particularly suitable for sugar-free confectionery. Beneo believes there's also potential for combining its other bulk sweeteners Palatinose, oligofructose and inulin with stevia.
Arguably, though, the biggest opportunities are for suppliers of other natural sugar substitutes to blend their sweeteners with stevia in a completely natural sweetening system. Cargill, which produces both stevia and erythritol, is clearly well-placed to take advantage of synergies between the two sweeteners.
Soft drinks, beer, ice cream, jams and conserves and certain desserts look set to dominate product development, says Dr Jan Geuns, president of EUSTAS, the European Stevia Association.
NP Sweet says aside from sugar confectionery, cereals and table-top sweeteners, liquid products such as beverages, dairy products, sauces and fruit preparations are obvious candidates for stevia/sugar combinations. This is because stevia only adds sweetness to the recipe, not sugar's bulking, body and texturising effects and this missing bulk is replaced most easily by water.
Of course, this all hinges on stevia gaining EU approval, via a process which Maria Teresa Scardigli, executive director of the International Stevia Council, outlines. "The European Commission has the power to amend the Annex of the Food Additive Directive to include steviol glycosides.
The amendment to the directive is agreed through discussion with a group of food experts from different EU member states. Once the Commission has approved the amendment, it passes to the European Parliament, which has the right to object. If the Parliament does not object, the amendment will enter into force."
She says the Commission's decision might be made before the summer break, which could mean that the Parliament's decision could follow in October.
The Commission's decision is informed to a degree by conclusions reached by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). In April 2010, EFSA published a positive scientific opinion, concluding that in general stevia is safe. However, it also expressed concern that at the maximum use levels proposed by the applicants, ADI (Acceptable Daily Intake) levels would be exceeded by consumers eating large amounts of foods containing stevia. The Commission asked the applicants to reconsider these uses to improve safety.
In response, applicants proposed a revised use level and withdrew licensing applications for 15 food groups, the biggest being 'desserts and other products'.
Despite the revised uses, the conclusion reached in EFSA's January 2011 exposure assessment was that the ADI would still be exceeded by heavy use consumers.
This could mean that the Commission may not grant full approval, according to Frédéric Vincent, health and consumer policy spokesman at the Commission.
Most of those following the process think stevia will be authorised for use in Europe by the autumn, partly because a temporary national authorisation in France expires in September 2011. As Geuns points out: "Companies already selling products with stevia there will have problems if there's no continuation of authorisation."
For the time being, then, there's still everything to play for.