Stevia supplier PureCircle has produced the first extracts from its proprietary StarLeaf stevia plants, which contain more than 20 times the sweet components found in regular stevia, the company said in a release.
The company says extracts from the new stevia variety have a more sugar-like flavor and no bitter aftertaste, allowing food manufacturers to make even greater reductions in sugar content without sacrificing taste. It now intends to plant the StarLeaf variety on “thousands of hectares.”
The StarLeaf plants have been developed as part of PureCircle’s Stevia Agronomy Program, which aims to use non-GMO plant breeding techniques to improve the flavor of stevia extracts, identify optimal growing practices and expand planting to new growing regions. The company invested $100 million in the program last year.
Apart from the company’s claims that the StarLeaf stevia has a more sugar-like taste, greater sustainability is likely to be a major advantage of this variety. Water is a major agricultural input for stevia plants, so being able to produce 20 times the steviol glycosides – the plants’ valuable sweet components – on the same amount of land could make a significant difference to the crop’s land and water use. That said, because of their intense sweetness, even regular stevia varieties require much less land and water than other conventionally used sweeteners to provide the same amount of sweetness.
For manufacturers, PureCircle’s aim to expand stevia planting beyond traditional growing regions like China is good news, allowing for a reliable sweetener supply independent of regional conditions. The ability to produce more sweet components in a smaller area is also likely to improve supply chain stability. Companies already sourcing stevia from PureCircle include industry giants like PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and Danone, among hundreds of others.
PureCircle’s claim that StarLeaf has a more sugar-like taste than other stevia extracts is the latest in a string of similar claims for its ingredients. Stevia’s sweetness profile and perceived bitter aftertaste have been the ingredient’s biggest challenge, so overcoming flavor issues understandably has been a major focus for the company in developing new varieties. It is plausible that the ingredients are becoming more sugar-like over time, but as always with new ingredients, it will be up to food companies to decide.