In two years stevia, a plant used for centuries by Paraguay' s Guarani Indians, has shot to prominence in products by Coca-Cola, Danone and Merisant, the maker of tabletop sweetener Canderel.
Encouraged by consumer distrust of artificial sweeteners and demand for natural products, they have turned to extract of stevia, which is up to 300 times sweeter than traditional beet or cane sugar.
Initial sales and projections are impressive but the plant's extracts have a strong aftertaste, often compared to liquorice, and are far more expensive than artificial sweeteners including aspartame, saccharin and sucralose.
To ease stevia's taste, French sugar maker Tereos' Beghin-Say and Coca-Cola's Fanta Still have kept sugar in their recipes. French diary giant Danone also had to work on a new recipe for its stevia yoghurts marketed under its leading low-calorie brand Taillefine in 2010 due to poor consumer feedback.
"We are trying to find solutions to erase this liquorice taste but it's not easy," Communication director for Danone Fresh Products Marilise Marcantonio told Reuters. "Consumers are looking for natural products - but not at any price," she said.
Marketing problems in the EU
The plant, which was authorised on the EU market in December last year, also faces possible hurdles to be defined as "natural" in some European Union markets.
Some scientists also note that a technique to extract Rebania-A, derived from stevia leaves, through ethanol, rather than water, to obtain purer and sweeter products could mean stevia may not be able to be marketed as "natural" in some EU countries, undermining the current marketing strategy.
France is keenly watched as a testing ground for Europe as the country cleared stevia-based products in late 2009. Since then, stevia's extracts have been used in France in low-calorie products such as yoghurts, soft drinks and jam.
"It's a revolution. In two years an ingredient has been able to turn the sweetener market upside down," said Olivier Badinand, marketing director for Europe of Merisant, maker of Canderel, leader in France's tabletop sweeteners market.
Stevia's market share among high-intensive sweeteners is still less than 1% but growth rates are impressive. Volumes jumped over 50% in France last year, and are expected to more than double in 2012 and quadruple by 2014.
"We are in a market that is really taking off," said Michel Laborde, head of sales and marketing at France's largest sugar maker, growers-owned Tereos, which has stepped into the stevia market through a joint venture with the world's leader PureCircle.
On Thursday (24 May), Paris will host the World Stevia Organisation's fourth conference and gather academics, industrials and sellers.
Despite taste and cost misgivings, the surge in sales to date, EU clearance and growing demand for low-sugar products correlated with a rise in obesity, has prompted food giants to launch new products.
Coca-Cola's flagship drinks Sprite and Nestea's recipes have been modified to include stevia in a bid to cut the sugar level by up to 30 percent and will soon be available in French stores, Claire Meunier, nutrition manager at Coca-Cola France said.
The world's main producers of compounds from stevia's leaves like Rebaudioside A (Reb A) are Malaysia's PureCircle and U.S. agrigiant Cargill.
Tereos PureCircle Solutions, created in late 2010, sells stevia-based sugar products to food and drink makers in several EU countries including Belgium, Italy and Spain.
Tereos also replaced aspartame with stevia in some of its low-calorie tabletop sugar Beghin-Say Ligne and sales trebled in the year to March, Laborde said, adding that the firm was in the process of launching a stevia powder sugar in France.
"The French market was absolutely key. In light of the success, we had a model to apply, time to look at the results and adapt our strategy to other countries," Merisant's Badinand said. The firm has now deployed stevia in around 20 EU states.
Merisant sells a stevia version of its flagship product Canderel and created a separate brand, PureVia, whose products - powder and cubes - look like sugar but contain none.
PureVia sales grew by 81% and Canderel Stevia by 115% in the year to end-February to a total of €14.7 million and Merisant targets 20 million in 2012, Badinand said.