Stevia – A Growing Guilt-Free Indulgence
By Rohith Sampathi
Owing to its intense sweetness and negligible calorie content, stevia has become a buzzword in the sweetener market. Consumers nowadays are seeking best of both worlds, a combination of indulgence and well-being. This consumption trend is making stevia popular with each passing day!
A sugar substitute is a food additive that imparts a sweet taste like sucrose (table sugar) without providing a significant food energy/calories that sucrose provides otherwise. Some sugar substitutes are produced by nature, and others are produced synthetically.
Stevia is the most popular, natural, low-calorie and zero glycemic index sweetener (200-350 times sweeter than sugar), extracted from the leaves of a plant called Stevia rebaudiana, a part of the Asteraceae family. The plant is native to Paraguay (South America) but also grows in other tropical and sub-tropical locations. The stevia leaves have been used for centuries by the indigenous Guarani natives of South America as a traditional sweetener.
There are two compounds in stevia that are responsible for the sweetness: stevioside and rebaudioside A. The modern usage of stevia primarily involves stevia-based sweeteners.
Synthetic sweeteners, such as acesulfame-K, aspartame, neotame, saccharin, and sucralose, despite being approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), have always been under some or other controversies due to their long-term ill-effects. In fact, certain scientific studies have even described them as potent neuro toxins, impairing the normal functioning of the central nervous system!
Although there are various natural sweeteners available in the market (such as erythritol, xylitol, and yacon syrup), recent studies conducted on human subjects with stevia have made this natural ingredient a preferred sweetener choice of the people. There have been conclusive evidence on stevia’s role in reducing the high blood pressure and lowering the blood sugar levels in diabetics.
Stevia contains steviol glycosides, the chemical compound responsible for the sweet taste of the leaves. Although stevia leaf and crude stevia extracts are not generally recognized as safe (“GRAS”) and do not have FDA approval for use in food, the FDA has not questioned the GRAS status of certain high-purity steviol glycosides for use in food.
August 2017: PepsiCo seeks to patent the stevia production process.
Perspective: The prime focus of major studies surrounding stevia is to produce less bitter and more sugary-tasting steviol glycoside Reb M. The enzymatic process employed here is efficient as well as cost-effective, and will possibly pave the way for further flavor improvement in steviol glycosides.
June 2017: PureCircle develops stevia plant 20 times sweeter than standard plant using traditional plant breeding techniques
Perspective: The use of such natural interventions greatly enhances the sustainability factor associated with stevia production. It also increases consumer’s trust as the word “organic” fetches more attention nowadays than ever before.
How the global market is responding to this natural sweetener?
A report by a market research firm, estimates the global stevia market to witness a CAGR of more than 8% during the period between 2017 and 2022.
The launch of stevia was perceived with a narrow application range, restricted to zero-calorie beverage applications, and as a natural replacement for artificial high intensity sweeteners (“HIS”). Stevia not only overtook Aspartame – a major HIS, within its first year of launch, but also rapidly expanded to the entire sweetener market and across all food & beverage categories.
The rising health-consciousness observed worldwide (owing to high prevalence rates of diabetes and obesity) and a paradigm shift from sugar (toward natural ingredients) are expected to be key factors driving the demand for stevia-based sweeteners.
The other factors propelling the growth of this natural sweetener are: high investments on R&D by major giants, growing product innovation with improved taste, increasing product visibility in modern retail formats, and high levels of marketing support.
As stevia-based sweeteners are being increasingly incorporated in sports nutrition and health drink products, the growing sports nutrition product and health beverage markets are expected to act as opportunities for the stevia market.
The Main Hurdles for the Market are: A highly fragmented market with supply-chain complexities, various regulatory constraints, and availability of other low-calorie sweeteners.
Although the demand for stevia has tripled since 2011, the growth has slowed down due to the bitter aftertaste. A flavor modification (by fine-tuning the chemical composition in a way that eliminates the bitter aftertaste) can revive the growth. The global-level regulatory unification can be achieved by recognized bodies, such as Codex, by effectively streamlining the different practices and procedures that monitor the use of stevia extracts in various food commodities.
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