Right now, you can produce stevia extracts from the leaf; enzymatically modify extracts from the leaf to make natural flavors or sweeteners; or bypass the leaf altogether and convert sugars into the best-tasting glycosides using microbes (eg. Cargill and Evolva are using a genetically engineered baker’s yeast to make Reb D+M).
All of these approaches have their merits, says PureCircle VP global marketing and innovation, Faith Son, but consumers will lose trust in the ‘natural’ sweeteners category unless they are all clearly and distinctly labeled, she told FoodNavigator-USA.
Enymatically modified stevia leaf extracts
PureCircle, for example, has an enzymatically-modified line of stevia sweeteners (as opposed to natural flavors made from enzymatically treated stevia extracts that have been around for a long time) in its new Zeta family of stevia-based sweeteners, which utilizes multiple steviol glycosides, and is designed to shine in low to zero-calorie formulations, she said.
“We call this the Zeta LE [leaf, enzyme] line. We make a clear distinction between a traditional stevia leaf extract, which remains in the natural state that it was in the leaf, and the enzymatically modified extract, where an enzyme is added and it physically modified the material so it no longer is the same as what it was when it was extracted from the leaf.
“Right now I can’t confirm any product that has been launched with our enzyme treated stevia sweetener as it is so new, but our view is that this should be made transparent to the consumer, so it should have a different labeling, for example, modified stevia leaf extract, just as you see modified food starch which is an enzymatically treated starch.”
As to whether the enzymatically modified products are as potent (eg. in the literature, sweetness levels for some products have been shown to be, say 180x as sweet as sugar as opposed to 300x sweeter for some standard high purity extracts), she said. "It's not as simple as that, as it all depends on the application, but yes, I can confirm that n certain instances you lose some of the sweetness intensity when you use enzyme modified ingredients."
The fact that fermentation-derived steviol glycosides don’t come from the stevia plant flies in the face of everything that we know from our proprietary consumer research
If you’re producing steviol glycosides from microbial fermentation (something PureCircle is not involved in), however, she said, “I think it must be communicated very clearly to the industry and to consumers that it doesn’t come from the leaf and has nothing to do with the stevia plant.
“And from a market perspective in terms of what consumers are ultimately looking for, the fact that it doesn’t come from the stevia plant flies in the face of everything that we know from our proprietary consumer research and all market research into what consumers are looking for, which is naturally sourced plant based ingredients.
“So from that standpoint we do not believe it’s what consumers want.”
Senomyx has identified siratose, a new zero-calorie, high-potency sweetening compound found in trace levels in monk fruit, which it plans to produce on a commercial scale via fermentation.
But will consumers think the ingredient is 'natural' if it's not sourced from monk fruit, even if it is chemically identical to the siratose found in the fruit? Read more HERE.
It is now “absolutely commercially viable” to source minor glycosides from the leaf
As for the claim – originally made by those promoting fermentation-based steviol glycosides – that it is cost prohibitive to produce commercial quantities of the best-tasting, but more minor glycosides such as Reb D+M from the leaf, that’s “simply not true” anymore, claimed Son.
Through a combination of breakthroughs in extraction and purification technology coupled with agronomic/breeding programs that enhanced the percentages of minor glycosides in stevia plants, it was now “absolutely commercially viable” to source minor glycosides from the leaf, she said.
It’s not all about Reb D and Reb M alone
She added: “But I want to emphasize that our taste research shows that it’s not all about Reb D and Reb M alone.
“When you get a bunch of glycosides together they outperform Reb D and M alone. What we’ve really discovered is that they have so many synergies when used together it’s about using the right combination of glycosides to deliver optimal taste performance.”
Border woes over: ‘We are free to resume business as usual in the US’
While it’s been a challenging year for PureCircle from a commercial perspective after shipments of refined stevia coming in from China were held at the border based on allegations that they contained stevia produced using forced labor, the shipments were released after the company provided US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) with detailed documentation, she said.
This included an audit report from Bureau Veritas (a 3rd party inspection service) which PureCircle says found no evidence of force, bonded or involuntary prison labor; proper procedure of assessing suppliers; and proper traceability systems to trace each batch of extract produced to leaf supplier.
PureCircle also supplied a SEDEX Members Ethical Trade Audit which it says found no evidence of forced, bonded or involuntary prison labor; and conformance with regulations regarding employment freely chosen, child labor, and regular employment.
Son added: “We are thrilled that the withhold release order has been lifted by CBP and we are free to resume business as usual in the US.”
We’ve also seen a ton of momentum in dairy
While sales in the first half of fiscal 2017 were down 13.4% year-on-year to $47.2m as a “direct result” of the shipments being withheld from the US, PureCircle had been vindicated and was seeing strong demand with added sugar now public enemy #1, soda taxes gaining traction, and added sugar labeling on the horizon, she said.
“We still find that the biggest momentum is in beverages, although we’ve also seen a ton of momentum in dairy, from yogurts to flavored milks."
A new, $42m fully automated processing plant in Malaysia – which effectively doubles capacity to produce PureCircle’s proprietary stevia leaf extract and includes a line for its new Zeta ingredients (click HERE) – has now been completed, she added.