The use of stevia as an ingredient is increasing as consumers continue to demand reduced-sugar foods and beverages. Although stevia is commonly used to replace sugar in such formulations, food manufacturers are struggling to remove the bitter aftertaste that many consumers report experiencing after tasting stevia-sweetened products. Recent genetic innovations have identified Reb D and Reb M glycosides – chemical compounds that give the stevia plant its sweetness – to be the sweetest components of the plant with little or no aftertaste. Stevia producer PureCircle claims to have developed a new strain of the stevia plant called Starleaf, which has 20 percent more Reb D and Reb M glycosides and the company plans on converting 80 percent of their stevia crops to this new strain.
Many food manufacturers have already identified the benefits of incorporating Reb D and Reb M glycosides in their formulations instead of the whole stevia leaf, but these two glycosides come in small amounts in the stevia leaf compared to the more abundant Reb A glycoside. According to the Chicago, Illinois-based company, they have developed two methods to produce more of the highly coveted Reb D and Reb M glycosides. First, the company has innovated in their category by producing this new Starleaf stevia strain and second, the company claims to have found a way to produce a sweetener “identical” to Reb D and Reb M while using Reb A and Starleaf as ingredients. However, the company has not disclosed the exact method they use to produce this new Reb A-based sweetener because its production is covered by patents and intellectual property.
PureCircle’s new stevia strain, just like all their other stevia products, has been approved by the FDA and has received GRAS (generally recognized as safe) designation. In addition, all of PureCircle’s stevia products are non-GMO, and can be labeled as “all natural.” From a sustainability standpoint, PureCircle claims that stevia production requires less land and water compared to cane sugar because the stevia plant is up to 400 times sweeter than regular sugar, which means that they need less of it to achieve a sugar-like taste.
This innovation comes just in time as more food manufacturers are reformulating their products to contain less sugar in order to keep up with consumer demands. During the second quarter of 2017, new product launches that had stevia as an ingredient increased by 13 percent compared to 2016. According to Mintel, companies who launched stevia-based products last year include Coca-Cola, Danone, Kraft Heinz, Nestle, PepsiCo and Unilever. In addition, PureCircle is likely to benefit from clients in the UK who are subject to the sugar tax that took effect this month.
Although stevia is becoming a widely popular sugar replacement ingredient, food manufacturers have been looking into other methods to reduce the amount of sugar in their products. Nestlé recently announced the reformulation of their iconic Milkybar using their patented sugar-reduction technology, which is capable of reducing the sugar content of their products by up to 40 percent. Last fall, ingredient manufacturer Ingredion introduced a line of low-sugar glucose syrups that, according to the company, can offer a 50 percent or higher reduction of monosaccharides and disaccharides in food products. In addition, Ireland-based Kerry Foods launched a “sugar enhancer” last year, claiming that it allows for 30 percent sugar reduction in food products.
However, stevia seems to be one the most attractive choices for sugar reduction with its all-natural composition, which allows food companies to produce “clean-label” products. PureCircle is currently in the midst of developing the next generation of Starleaf stevia with double the amount (40 percent) of Reb D and Reb M in its composition.