It seemed too good to be true. Stevia, used for centuries by the natives of Paraguay, was 30 times sweeter than sugar. But the plant's leaves, available as ground-up powder in health-food stores for the past few decades, never quite caught on. The likely reason was a pronounced aftertaste that eclipsed its zero-calorie advantage. While Stevia's loyal aficionados liked the idea of ingesting a whole food, many calorie-conscious consumers chose the pastel-packet route of artificial sugar substitutes Sweet'n Low (pink), Splenda (yellow) and Equal (blue).
That landscape is about to change, thanks to two stevia sweetener products that were introduced over the past year.
The new kids on the block Truvia and PureVia have seemingly addressed the obstacles that have kept stevia products from entering the mainstream.
The key is something called rebaudioside A Reb A for short the best-tasting component of the stevia leaf, which has a profile very similar to sugar with respect to onset, intensity and duration of sweetness. Both Truvia and PureVia use Reb A as an ingredient, although Truvia's label lists it as "rebiana."
"We've received handwritten letters from consumers thanking us and saying they've been waiting for a zero-calorie natural sweetener that tasted good and was sold at a price they could afford," says Ann Tucker, director of marketing for Truvia, noting that people bake and cook with the product too. She adds that consumer research was conducted on four continents and in seven countries for several years prior to launch. The growing demand for natural products was confirmed.
But the drive toward knowing where the food we eat comes from wasn't the only factor that figured in stevia's makeover. The artificial-sweetener sector was experiencing negative growth.
"The decline in sales of the pinks and blues and, more recently, of the yellows has been apparent for several years," says J.J. Betts, brand director for PureVia, which is manufactured by Whole Earth Sweetener Co. Its parent company, Merisant, manufactures Equal. "We know stevia is the next generation of mass-marketed sweeteners in this country."
In August, market-research firm Mintel reported that U.S. sales of Truvia, PureVia and other stevia sweeteners at natural and conventional retailers, excluding Walmart would exceed $100 million this year.
"This is a watershed moment for stevia," says Stephen Rannekleiv, an executive director of research for Rabobank, a global bank based in the Netherlands whose clients are primarily in the food and agriculture sectors.
This month Rabobank issued a report stating that, within five years, sales of Reb A in the U.S. would reach about $700 million. The auspicious prospects, Rannekleiv suggests, are related to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's certifying Reb A as GRAS (Generally Regarded As Safe) last December.
Cargill received certification and sells Reb A to beverage and food companies as an ingredient. Whole Earth Sweetener Co. also received certification; PepsiCo, which co-owns the PureVia brand, uses Reb A in Trop50 and SoBe Lifewater.
Down the road, GRAS certification may indeed help build awareness of products containing Reb A. For now, it's Truvia and PureVia that are bringing stevia awareness to mainstream consumers, indirectly benefiting smaller stevia-sweetener companies.
Wes Crain, co-owner and vice president at Navitas Naturals, says the presence of Truvia and PureVia in the marketplace helped boost sales of his Organic Green Stevia, which was launched in April. "As a little company, we've benefited from their consumer education," he says. How sweet.