There’s a kind of stigma with stevia.
Yes, it’s widely deployed by emerging beverage entrepreneurs who want to differentiate themselves with all those zeroes, be it sugar or calories. But it’s not yet widely consumed. Some find it too bitter. Others can’t tolerate a sweetener that doesn’t have a taste mimicking sugar. Ingredient suppliers have long known of these complaints and have been working toward narrowing the gap between stevia and sugar.
Yet, while these companies aim to pinpoint the right formula, they’re also aware of another drawback: product inconsistency.
It’s not for a lack of trying. Most big-time stevia suppliers pack their research and development labs with Ph.D.’s who focus on quality assurance/quality control, analytical chemistry and biochemistry, molecular biology, even horticulture. The inconsistency, said Robert Brooke, CEO of Stevia First Corporation, lies in the plant itself.
The process leaves plenty of room for error, seemingly not at fault to the stevia manufacturers. You grow, harvest, extract and purify. And when you’re talking about managing not just a plant or a field, but an entire growing season, this obligate outcrosser leads to a range of compositions. The unpredictability of stevia makes things tough for scientists who want to market a reliable product.
“There’s tons of genetic variability,” Brooke said.
To better manage the product’s final outcome, stevia suppliers such as Stevia First Corp., Cargill and DSM have begun fermenting it. These suppliers say that the process has a variety of benefits, with their importance depending on your perspective. By improving consistency, fermented stevia may provide a higher quality product with a more comfortable kind of sweetness. The process also makes it easier to scale stevia, which could spread its footprint at significantly lower costs. And to the disgruntled plaintiffs of the world, the process may also be more “natural” or “pure.”
Right now, these companies are deep in the developmental phase of the process and product releases are imminent. The process itself varies by the proprietary methods of the company, but it largely aims to reduce the amount of leaves used via the enzymatic enhancement of less-desirable tasting stevia components.
While perhaps not the main driving factor, Mintel senior consultant Nirvana Chapman believes that Cargill, and perhaps other ingredient suppliers, have been motivated to purify their stevia production processes because of recent litigation. Cargill has faced a few lawsuits in the past few years, such as a deceptive marketing case that, a cool $5 million later, was settled in September 2013. Cited in the case was the word “natural,” a familiar face in these parts, and the phrase “similar to making tea.” At the root of the argument were Cargill’s label claims. The process of stevia fermentation, Chapman said, could help these companies avoid such issues by having the control to breed out undesirable traits.
“The process of fermentation is more natural and less likely to be questioned because there’s fewer processing aides,” she said. “But it’s not coming from a plant, it’s coming from a microbe.”
Brooke also said that the lawsuits could very well be a strong motive here. However, he knows that no single product will please everybody, and believes it’s not at the core of the fermentation idea. If you can satisfy 90 to 95 percent of consumers, he said, then you go for it.
“You can’t let perfect be the enemy of the good,” he said.
While Cargill surely hasn’t forgotten about its courtroom expenditures, Wade Schmelzer, senior research food scientist, said that the company also ferments stevia because it’s looking to scale the product through a more cost-effective method. The Cargill process has been in development for around three years. He said that in a few more years, after enough scaling practice and enough testing of the sweetness and its dynamics — how fast the sweetness comes on and dissipates — Cargill’s recently-launched ViaTech stevia strain will be updated with the latest evolutions of fermented stevia.
“Ultimately, we’re trying to replicate what sucrose brings to the table,” he said.
Tate & Lyle, another well-known stevia supplier, hasn’t yet experimented with fermenting stevia, according to product manager Megan Kirchhoff. She said that the company doesn’t mess with it because of the preferences of its network. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t define “natural,” so the company’s customers define it for them. Apparently, fermented stevia doesn’t fit the bill.
“In Tate & Lyle’s world, that wouldn’t be a natural product,” she said.
Stevia First Corp. hasn’t yet decided on a name for its fermented stevia product, but Brooke said that it will be released by the end of the year. DSM’s take on fermented stevia has been in development for the past two years or so and it will also be released at the end of the year, said Greg Kesel, regional president Americas of DSM Food Specialties.
While ingredient suppliers are developing and learning how to scale their process at the same time, what kind of incentive do they have to be the first to market their version of fermented stevia?
Brooke said that being first-to-market could certainly help draw customers. The sooner it’s available, the sooner the product formulation teams can fiddle with the sweetener. This could help companies lock into agreements before the competition. There’s also a tech angle to consider. These ingredient suppliers want to be the first to prove that their proprietary method works. After enlisting GRAS Associates, LLC, Stevia First Corp. announced on June 25 that it has completed preliminary GRAS assessment. But that’s just the beginning of procedural credibility.
Even with these considerations, Brooke has a greater interest than just getting the product out. He wants to get it right.
“Being first would be great,” Brooke said. “But you’re kind of in it for the long haul.”