Newly introduced foods and beverages using stevia sweeteners grew by 31% in 2018, according to a release from PureCircle that cited figures from the Mintel Global New Products Database. That's up from an 11% growth rate in 2017.
Of the total number of stevia-sweetened product launches last year, beverages saw a 36% jump, while foods increased by 27%, PureCircle said. In categories using high-intensity sweeteners, stevia is the leader for plant-based drinks, ice cream and frozen yogurt, ready-to-drink iced tea, dressings and vinegars.
Stevia-based sweeteners appeared in just 10% of product launches in 2011, PureCircle noted, with aspartame being used in 36% that year. In 2018, stevia was in 29% of all products with high-intensity sweeteners, while aspartame was in 20%.
PureCircle is a major producer of stevia-based sweeteners and is involved in R&D, production and marketing of products made from its proprietary StarLeaf plants. The company said the current lineup of stevia leaf sweeteners has a more sugar-like taste and help manufacturers across various categories offer the zero-calorie and low-calorie products consumers want.
These statistics show that the stevia trend is growing. Several major beverage and food companies launched products with stevia-based sweeteners last year, PureCircle noted. Japanese snack maker Calbee Foods uses stevia in its potato chips, and Coca-Cola introduced stevia-sweetened soda in New Zealand last year. Danone's Light & Fit yogurt brand contains both stevia and sugar, and Nestlé just launched a stevia-sweetened version of its Milo chocolate malt beverage in Australia.
Manufacturers may be turning to stevia for a number of reasons, including taste improvements, cost and scale advantages, and label considerations, since some extracts can be listed as natural flavors. Stevia also contains no calories and is naturally 30 to 40 times sweeter than sugar, so food and beverage makers can use less of it.
However, not all manufacturers are keen on stevia. Some consumers find its formulations too bitter or say it leaves a lingering aftertaste. Petal, a sparkling beverage made with rose water, recently took the ingredient out of its product following customer complaints, replacing it with organic agave. Coca-Cola had started adding stevia to its Glaceau Vitaminwater in 2014, but quickly went back to sugar after complaints about the taste.
Stevia is also more expensive than artificial sweeteners, so companies like PureCircle — including Pyure and Apura Ingredients — have been coming up with branded extracts and other products made from different types of stevia to accommodate varying preferences and uses. Cargill developed its own branded EverSweet stevia product in 2016. More recently, Sweet Green Fields and Tate & Lyle introduced a glycosylated stevia extract called Zolesse.
If these ingredient innovations have solved the bitterness issue, stevia will likely continue appearing in food and beverage launches. And, as consumers continue turning away from sugar, more competition in the natural sweeteners category will be showing up. Stevia is already vying with monk fruit and erythritol to become the favored sugar alternative — though stevia is considered more sustainable and natural.
It's tough to compete with a zero-calorie product that comes from a plant, but no doubt the sweetener market will continue to try.