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Come on stevia!

With the spectre of obesity hanging over the soft drinks industry, big names like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo are at pains to introduce more consumer friendly sweetening agents into their drinks. A number of artificial sweeteners have been employed over the years including aspartame, cyclamate and saccharin but the public are wary of actual or perceived side effects. This has led to attention focusing on more natural low calorie sweeteners and this, in turn, has opened the door for stevia.

Stevia extracts have up to 300 times the sweetness of sugar with the major advantage that stevia is  natural, not artificial, being a member of the sunflower family (Asteraceae). However, stevia is not finding an easy path to success. It has been employed by Schweppes Australia and by Fanta in Turkey but it was only in December 2008 that it received FDA approval in the US. The European Food Safety Authority subsequently gave a positive safety assessment of stevia in early 2010 and full EU approval was formally approved in November 2011.

And it is here that the tumble weeds roll weightlessly across the desert plain. Full EU approval was achieved over a year ago, so where is the eagerly anticipated avalanche of stevia based soft drink launches? Europe is crucial to their development. According to Pure Circle Ltd, the region accounts for a quarter of the global sweetener market. This represents an even larger contribution than the US. However, stevia is not exactly projecting headline news as a soft drinks sweetener. In Belgium, for example, I am only aware of it being adopted by Lipton iced tea in 2011 and Nestea this year.

Pure Circle had calculated that worldwide consumption of stevia should be more than 50% higher at the end of 2011 than it was in 2010. But there remain reservations about how large the market could actually become. With criticisms in respect of previous sweeteners, consumer education is a fundamental issue that must be addressed to support its rise. After four years exposure in the US, it is doubtful that the majority of the country’s population are even aware of stevia. Then, there is the price hurdle, especially when economies are still feeling the backlash of recession. To me, the main concern remains the bitter after taste. But if we can (reputedly) send men to the moon, surely we can overcome a little matter of taste?

Categories: Beverages
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