There might just be a sweet revolution following the news that corporate giants Coca Cola and Cargill filed for 24 U.S. patents related to stevia, a South American herb used for centuries to sweeten food and drinks.
“Stevia is the world’s only zero-calorie, zero-glycemic, all-natural sweetener,” says Steve May, innovator of Arizona-based SweetLeaf stevia products. “It’s kind of the holy grail of the sweetener business.”
Stevia is 300 times sweeter than sucrose and in October the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sent a warning letter to the organic foods firm Hain Celestial Group, which uses the product in certain tea and drink mixes, saying it had concerns about the effects the sweetener had on blood sugar levels, the cardiovascular system, and the reproductive system.
Still media reports say Coke and Cargill are working to petition the FDA for the product’s approval. “The tide is changing for this little leaf. It’s almost a perfect storm,” May says.
For quick-service restaurants, that could mean that one day, green packets of stevia sweeteners will be as omnipresent as white, pink, and blue packets at coffee counters. And since all-natural extracts are part of everything from sodas to marinades, the change could even cross over into the kitchen.
Cargill plans to experiment with various food products, adding its stevia extracts to “anything it makes sense to add it to—ice creams, desserts,” says Anne Tucker, spokeswoman for the Minneapolis, Minnesota-based company. “People are more concerned about where things come from, what’s in their food. There’s nothing added to this. It’s an all-natural, zero-calorie sweetener.”
Coca Cola and Cargill spent more than four years researching stevia before submitting information for patents. “This is another step toward meeting the public’s need for all-natural,” says Coca Cola spokeswoman Wanda Rodwell. “It’s an alternative we want to be able to deliver to our consumers.”
Neither company has a timetable for introducing stevia in the U.S. or worldwide. The process for U.S. approval of food additives can take years, according to the FDA. Companies submit information attesting to the ingredient’s safety and wait for it to clear. If and when Coke and Cargill achieve FDA approval, stevia could be sold as a sweetener and used as a food and drink ingredient.
Coca Cola is now planning to launch products in one of 12 countries where stevia is permitted, but hasn’t decided where or in what product the sweetner will be used, Rodwell says.
Regulatory status isn’t the only hurdle facing stevia. “It doesn’t sound like the biggest concern is the FDA—having enough supply is more important than that,” says Livingston Miller, president of Ultima Health Products in New York City, which uses stevia in its electrolyte-boosting health-supplement powders and packets.
Paraguay has amped up plans for stevia production since the Coke-Cargill patent deal was announced. The country’s number of stevia plants reportedly quadrupled in the past decade, to 3,700 acres, but China also jumped into the natural-sweetening fray, and now has 50,000 acres under cultivation, making it the leading global producer of stevia.
Stevia—a 2-foot shrubby herb that looks like a mix of mint and alfalfa—is an annual crop in China, but in its native Paraguay, it can be harvested four times a year.
Studies suggest that stevia, or more specifically, the Stevia Rebaudiana Bertoni varietal, has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antibacterial properties and also fights against diabetes, high blood pressure, and tooth decay.
Paraguay’s native people have for centuries added leaves to hot drinks or bread dough. South American cooking also uses dried leaves and a syrup-consistency concentrate. In these forms, however, stevia can leave a slight bitterness or licorice-like aftertaste. But more sophisticated extracts of stevia’s sweetest parts—like those produced by U.S. firms, including Coke and Cargill—often leave scant or no aftertaste
Stevia is now available in the U.S. alongside dietary supplements in various forms, including liquid concentrate, powder, and fresh or dried leaves. May’s company is even introducing green packets with crystallized granules like sugar.
Since the ’90s, stevia has gained a grassroots following. May estimates that U.S. stevia sales grew from $100,000 to $40 million or so since he brought SweetLeaf to shelves in 1999. Stevia is also gaining a chic reputation among the eco-trendy. In August, it was dubbed “Sweetener to the Stars” by Advertising Age magazine because it’s popular at celebrity hangouts in Los Angeles and New York City.
“The future is here,” says Mark Ukra, owner of West Hollywood tea stores and author of the upcoming cookbook The Ultimate Tea Diet, which instructs readers to use stevia in tea-based recipes. “As the consumer learns more and more about good health, they’ll also be moving toward stevia as a healthy sweetener alternative,”
In countries where stevia is permitted in foods, it’s quickly captured the public’s attention. In Japan, for instance, it now makes up about 40 percent of the sweetening market.