Stevia is Huge – But what lies beyond?

Talk about rising to the challenge.

After initially being introduced only gingerly by the beverage giants, Stevia (or Rebaudioside A) has become the non-caloric sweetener of choice for new brands, entrepreneurial and big-company manufactured alike. It turns out that even as companies were concerned about its mixability in the first year of its introduction to the mainstream, flavor houses were busy refining it for prime time.

Take Vitaminwater 10, for example – originally a product released with great fanfare, Coke wasn’t willing to part completely with the “crystallized fructose” that had sweetened Vitaminwater for so long. Problem was, the 10 didn’t work as well as Zero from a marketing standpoint; fortunately, from a formulation standpoint, things were evolving – by the time Coke needed to move to Zero, stevia was ready. Since then, the Zero component has become a huge part of the health-conscious Vitaminwater consumer base.

Since then, Stevia has gone everywhere – the formulation intelligence has improved, so that the product is used with the right flavors, and the range of those flavors has broadened. It’s proven to work with tea, with CSDs, even with energy drinks. Products looking to tamp down their calories and move onto natural product channel shelves have flocked to the sweetener. Because of its all-natural origin, products that use stevia are better able to access those natural and specialty retail channels with an innovative aura around them, such as Whole Foods.

That’s aura can be enough to build a brand – Zevia, for example, has thrived within Whole Foods while sweetening itself solely with stevia.

But the sweetener may have reached its limit.

Recent news that Diamond Foods was putting out a Stevia/Sugar mix indicates that the sweetener has become pervasive on the one hand but has jumped the stevia shark on the other: once that sugary cut is in place, it indicates that there’s some level of consumer unhappiness with the overall outer edges of the product.

It has happened before – for example, sucralose didn’t work for many consumers without Ace-K. Nutrasweet also became a baking mix – and then an afterthought – not too many years ago. That seems to indicate that there’s something of a lifecycle for non-caloric sweeteners, and even though Stevia still seems to have a lot of runway ahead of it, there has to be someone out there, somewhere, wondering what the next sweetener in the cycle will be.

Here are some potential sources:

1. Agave Nectar – along with Stevia, less processed ingredients are expected to grow to about $1.4 billion by 2015, and Agave Nectar is emerging as an alternative to high fructose corn syrup, according to a recent report by Freedonia, a research firm.

2. Monkfruit – Also known as Lo Han Guo, beverage marketers haven’t given up on this highly effective sweetener. While early beverage attempts were killed off because of expense, a recent Tate & Lyle report indicated that in certain types of products, like dairy, the sweetener works better in smaller, more cost-effective doses. It also has a more consumer-ready aura, with the idea that it is coming from fruit winning some over more easily, according to the company. Additionally, it’s less bitter than stevia – and might even work in a mix with that product.

3. Tongues – Scientific firms, like Senomyx, continue to work on enzymes that may allow sugar to taste more intense in lower doses.

4. Oligosaccharides – these are actually lower-calorie sweet carbohydrates derived from enzymes. They are slightly less sweet and digestibility remains the biggest hurdle, according to researchers.

5. The rest of the plant – according to PureCircle marketing executive Jason Hecker, there’s more than one possible sweetener that can be derived from the stevia leaf. In fact, one PureCircle stevia-based sweetener contains nine different kinds of sweetener components – all farmed from the leaf.