November 14, 2011 3:54 pm

Brussels backs Stevia sweetener

A sweetener billed as an advance against the obesity and diabetes epidemics is poised to appear on European shelves following approval this weekend by the European Commission.

Steviol glycosides or stevia, which comes from a basil-like shrub native to Paraguay, is already available in the US and France and is now used in 6m US households. The long-awaited European approval comes nearly three years after the product won acceptance in the US.

Coca-Cola which, like fellow beverages maker PepsiCo already uses stevia in some drinks, said the greenlight paved the way for it to deliver more beverages with fewer calories.

Dominique Reiniche, Coca-Cola Europe president, described the move as “another important milestone” as it expands its portfolio of drinks. It comes nearly three decades after the companies brought in its first zero-calorie beverage. Today, nearly one-third of the group’s total brands are low and no calorie.

Truvia, the Stevia-branded manufacturer owned by Cargill, has signed up with European sugar groups – including the UK’s Associated British Foods – as distribution partners.

“After less than three years on the US market, Truvia sweetener has fundamentally changed the sweetener category and contributed to the growth of a previously stagnant retail category. The category has grown 18 per cent in three years,” Truvia said.

Merisant, marketing the sweetener under the brand Pure Via, reckons the European market for Stevia-based sweeteners should reach an additional $100m – on top of the existing $500m sweetener market – next year.

In the US, Packaged Facts, the market researcher, estimates that sales of stevia will grow from $210.6m in 2010 to $1.19bn (£763m) this year.

Optimism is based on global efforts to tackle obesity and diabetes, which has left the food industry desperately seeking ways to make healthier products.

Manufacturers of fizzy drinks and other sweet foodstuffs already have a toe in the water. Coca-Cola uses stevia to sweeten Fanta Still in France – which now accounts for more than 5 per cent of total French Fanta sales – and VitaminWater Zero in the US. Also in France, Danone uses it to sweeten its Taillefine yoghurts.

Pepsi, which uses stevia in Trop50, says performance has been “outstanding”. The drink became a brand with annual sales of $150m in two years and sales are up 50 per cent year to date.

Despite the enthusiasm, some analysts warn that stevia still has to overcome issues on taste – some say the liquorice-like profile is a deterrent to some consumers. There is also an innate conservatism among consumers, as testified by the outcry in Britain when the recipe for HP sauce was changed.

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