Over the past decade, a little-known herb 200 times sweeter than sugar has become a $4-billion global industry, showing up in everything from Coca-Cola sodas to Heinz ketchup. Not a bad start for a product that many people still think has a bitter aftertaste.
The stevia plant, which can be processed into a zero-calorie sweetener, has taken off as a sugar alternative. Consumption tripled from 2011 to 2016, according to data from researcher Euromonitor International. While it’s still a small part of sweetener sales, companies, such as Cargill Inc. and ED&F Man Holdings Ltd. are investing more—
including to improve the taste.
“This is a market that has huge growth potential,” said Jonathan Hugh, head of the agri-industrial division at London-based commodity trader ED&F Man, which has a stake in the stevia-based Unavoo Sweetener. “We see a lot of investment opportunities.”
Finding a low-calorie sugar substitute that doesn’t alter the taste of iconic brands has been a longtime quest in the food industry, especially with a global obesity epidemic and rising rates of diabetes. Over the years, that’s led to artificial man-made sweeteners, such as aspartame, sucralose and xylitol. But many consumers report unpleasant side effects from those products, or they worry about ingesting chemical additives.
Stevia, often marketed as a natural sweetener because it is derived from plant extracts, has almost no calories and a glycemic index of zero, which means it can be consumed by diabetics.
Named after a Spanish botanist, stevia is a member of the sunflower family of plants and grew in South America for hundreds of years. It didn’t get much attention until 2008, when Minneapolis-based Cargill—one of the world’s largest agricultural companies—introduced its stevia-based Truvia sweetener in the US.
Demand accelerated after that, including in 2011, when the European Union approved stevia use in food. It’s now found in salad dressings, chewing gum and even face wipes for babies. The plants—which thrive in sunny, warm conditions—are now grown in more places, including Paraguay, Kenya, China, the US, Vietnam, India, Argentina and Colombia.
More than 10,000 stevia-containing food and drink products have been added in five years, with more than 70 percent being introduced in the past three years, according to PureCircle Ltd., a Malaysia-based stevia maker partly owned by commodity traders Olam International Ltd. and Wilmar International Ltd.