The controversy surrounding sugar only seems to be growing each year, leaving the the confectionery industry with a quandary regarding the use of sweeteners in its products.
There are multiple sugar substitutes available such as honey, fruit sugar and high fructose corn syrup. However, each has downsides and many are no healthier than conventional sugar.
Stevia, however, is different from most other sugar substitutes: it has zero calories and is actually sweeter than conventional sugar. Coca Cola has already put its support behind stevia, working hard since the mid 2000s to legalize and develop rebaudioside A, an extract of stevia. The company also has exclusive rights to develop and sell rebaudioside A in beverages, leading PepsiCo to develop rebaudioside D, another steviol glycoside.
The soft-drink industry is using the anti-sugar movement as an opportunity to expand and diversify their product range: Coca Cola has released Coke Life in countries in South America and Europe, and plans to bring it to the US by the end of this year. PepsiCo, not to be outdone, is set to release a stevia-sweetened version of Sierra Mist in the fall.
Coca Cola partnered with Cargill, the makers of the increasingly popular Truvia® branded products, to research and develop rebaudioside A, with both companies successfully petitioning the FDA to lift its ban on stevia extracts as food additives. PepsiCo co-developed rebaudioside D with Whole Earth Sweetener, a subsidiary of Merisant, the sweetener subsidiary of Monsanto. Merisant’s PureVia®, launched as a competitor to Cargill’s Truvia®, has met success in Europe, though it has not been as successful at home.
Production of stevia is growing at a substantial rate as well, with some tobacco farmers switching to the new crop for which they anticipate a large market. Some say that stevia may one day, in the not to distant future, account for up to one third of the $58 billion sweetener industry. Given that stevia is relatively new to the marketplace, it is difficult to determine whether it is more expensive to use as a sweetener than sugar. Despite this, the price seems advantageous enough to the soft-drink industry.
While many products on the shelves of supermarkets today may claim to be sweetened with stevia, it is actually a misnomer. Stevia, a plant whose leaves were used as a sweetener by ancient South Americans is currently banned by the US Food and Drug Administration, which has named concerns over its effects on “blood sugar and…the reproductive, cardiovascular, and renal systems.” Instead, these products are sweetened with steviol glycosides, purified extracts from the stevia plant, and are simply marketed as ‘stevia’ giving it a more wholesome, ‘all natural’, image.
One critique of products sweetened with steviol glycosides is their sometimes-bitter aftertaste. Coca Cola has addressed this issue by mixing in sucrose. Of course, this only solves half of the problem, as more than half of the sweetener is sugar. However, research is currently underway to eliminate this bitter aftertaste, meaning that stevia extracts could very well become the healthy sugar alternative that the confectionery industry needs.