The Strategist

Stevia: sugarless yet sweet investment opportunity

08/17/2017 - 08:45

Over the past 10 years, a little-known plant, which is 200 times sweeter than sugar, has sparked development of a world industry worth $ 4 billion. Now stevia components are a part of a huge number of products, including Coca-Cola and Heinz ketchup. Not bad for an additive that was not liked for its bitter aftertaste. Leaves of stevia contain a low-calorie sweetener, which is used as an alternative to sugar.

According to Bloomberg, with reference to studies of Euromonitor International, consumption of the extract obtained has increased three-fold from 2011 to 2016. Although stevia still occupies a small niche in the sugar substitute industry, companies such as Cargill and ED & F Man are investing more and more in its promotion - including in improving taste.

The search for a low-calorie sugar substitute, which does not affect the products’ taste, has been going on for several years. Food industry giants are very interested in the result, given the global epidemic of obesity and the spread of diabetes. For a long time, manufacturers resorted to artificial sweeteners - aspartame, sucralose and xylitol. However, many consumers reported unpleasant side effects or simply worried about the chemical composition.

Stevia is sold as a natural sweetener, as it is derived from plant extracts. It practically does not contain calories, and its glycemic index is zero, which means that it is safe for diabetics.

Stevia got its name from a Spanish botanist, who first explored it. It belongs to the family of Compositae and has been growing in South America for hundreds of years. Until 2008, no one paid any special attention to it, until large American food company Cargill invented its own sweetener based on stevia - Truvia. After that, demand began to grow.

The jump occurred in 2011, when the European Union approved use of stevia in food products. Now it is a part of sauces, chewing gum and even children's napkins. Now this heat-loving plant is grown in many countries, including Paraguay, Kenya, China, the USA, Vietnam, India, Argentina and Colombia. Over the past five years, stevia has been added to the order of 10,000 foods and beverages, more than 70% of which have been added to the list in the last three years, says PureCircle, the Malaysian stevia producer, partly owned by agro-industrial corporations Olam International and Wilmar International. According to results of a market research of the London company Mintel, only in the UK the number of products with the addition of stevia almost tripled by 2016.

Basically, it is present in soft drinks, but is increasingly found in sauces, ketchups, bars, popcorn and toothpaste. The largest food corporation Nestlé SA, headquartered in Vevey, Switzerland, introduced stevia into fruit juice in Brazil, coffee blends in South Korea and its signature cold tea Nestea. Lindt & Spruengli AG, the largest producer of premium chocolate, reports that by autumn it will introduce a line of chocolate with stevia in the US through the Russell Stover division. The largest producers of carbonated Coca-Cola and PepsiCo use it in their diet drinks.

Of course, sugar remains the sweet empire’s king - it accounts for approximately 83% of the total market volume, according to one of the world's leading consultants in the agro-industrial sector LMC International Ltd. Consumers still have claims for a bitter aftertaste of stevia. Despite the fact that demand continues to grow, from 2012 its rates fell sharply to 2.1%, amounting to 1038 tons in 2016, says Euromonitor.

By 2018, Cargill plans to introduce a new generation of steels called EverSweet - according to the company, it is easier to produce in bulk volumes, while it will not resemble liquorice. ED & F Man was even faster: the company plans to release a new, "virtually indistinguishable" from sugar additive this year. Archer-Daniels-Midland, one of the largest producers of corn syrup with a high content of fructose, in turn, experiments with improvements of its Sweetright sweetener. Stevia can be the best alternative to sugar, which people around the world are refusing slowly but surely.