Laura-Daisy Jones, Mintel global food science analyst, said investments from multinational companies including Coca-Cola, Heinz and Lipton showed that – far from being the awkward new kid – stevia is now set to stay with a more commanding position on the sweetener block
While stevia’s success rests on its constituent steviol glycosides, chemical compounds that are up to 300 times sweeter than sugar, the plant also contains polyphenols with antioxidant and antibiotic potential, Jones said, citing this March 2013 study in the Journal of Diabetes and its Complications.
Here, Shivanna et al. mention use of Stevia rebaudiana to treat diabetes in Brazil, and the herb’s “numerous therapeutic properties which have proven safe and effective over hundreds of years”.
Stevia study shows whole leaf alleviates liver and kidney damage in rats
Using whole leaf stevia powder, polyphenols or fiber extracted separately, they looked at the antioxidant, anti-diabetic and renal protective properties of stevia as a supplement for 80 diabetic rats.
The team’s results suggested that stevia leaves played a significant role in alleviating liver and kidney damage in the animals, induced a hypoglycemic effect by reducing blood glucose and insulin levels, and improved antioxidant levels in the liver.
“For now, stevia will remain popular as a no-calorie, ‘natural’ source of sweetness. However, as more evidence reveals stevia’s full nutritional benefits, work to retain these active compounds during the extraction process could mean in the future that stevia-based sweeteners may be able to combine functional health benefits alongside their reduced offer of calorie-free sweetness,” Jones said.
Not that this doesn’t present problems, of course, given that regulatory approval of highly refined stevia extracts (not stevia in the strict sense) in the US in 2008 and Europe in 2011, for example, doesn’t extend to their use as a functional food or dietary supplement.
Taking the US alone and putting the confusing regulatory climate that governs structure/function and health claims, which any such stevia would have to negotiate, to one side, any whole leaf ingredient would have to, as a first step, re-submit for GRAS or submit a food additive petition to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
But FDA has not approved whole leaf stevia use
The FDA website says: “FDA has not permitted the use of whole-leaf stevia or crude stevia extracts because these substances have not been approved for use as a food additive.
“FDA does not consider their use in food to be GRAS in light of reports in the literature that raise concerns about the use of these substances. Among these concerns are control of blood sugar and effects on the reproductive, cardiovascular and renal systems,” it adds, in this section of the site.
Added functionality aside, Jones said stevia’s taste profile was ever-improving – with reports of a bitter aftertaste diminishing due to better breeding, improved extraction methods and production processes, while concerns around cost and perceived ‘naturalness’ among consumers in Europe are falling away.
Distrust of artificial sweeteners means that stevia has finally made an impression beyond Paraguay, Brazil and Japan, Jones said – with product launches up 732% globally between 2009 and 2013.
In 2009 Asia-Pacific accounted for 64% of food and drink launches with stevia extract and stevia-based ingredients, she said. But the number was only 37% in 2013, as North America doubled its share to 22%, while 32% came from Europe in 2013, versus only 2% in 2009.
Consumer perceptions - how does stevia's stock stack up versus aspartame, etc.?
As stevia’s stock continues to rise with consumers, the major brands have jumped on the juggernaut, although one might argue that they got it rolling in the first place – in soft drinks, for instance, Mintel research shows that a third of UK consumers are cutting down on soft drinks due to concerns over artificial sweeteners.
The pattern repeats itself in the US, where Mintel polled 2,000 internet users aged 18+ in September 2014. 60% thought honey was ‘good for health’, 10% granulated sugar, 22% agave, 18% stevia and 14% monk fruit – compare this to sucralose (5%), saccharin (5%) and aspartame (5%).
5% thought honey ‘bad for health’, 31% granulated sugar, 9% agave, 15% stevia, 7% monk fruit, 30% sucralose, 5% saccharin and 5% aspartame – showing that, although stevia has an image problem among some consumers, it still performs strongly compared to other high intensity sweeteners, especially those deemed ‘artificial’.