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The stevia story

When it comes to sweetener solutions, every manufacturer faces a unique formulation challenge. Some of the more common categories where sugar and calorie reduction continues to be important include beverages, dairy, confectionery and tabletop sweeteners. Recent developments within the sweetener space have improved the sweetness quality and taste of products available. Alongside that, food and drink formulators now have a toolbox of ingredients that can help them optimise the taste and move it closer to that of a sugar sweetened product.

Stevia is being used across nearly all food and beverage applications. It is a common choice in formulations as it contributes zero calories, does not raise blood sugar and is 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar. This means stevia sweeteners can achieve the same sweetness as sugar by using only a small amount. In addition, stevia sweeteners are derived from natural plant sources, which makes them appealing to a majority of consumers. In fact, nine out of 10 consumers find the claim ‘naturally sweetened’ appealing [1].

High potency sweeteners such as stevia can be used in combination with sucrose to add sweetness back to formulations once sugars are removed. Formulating with more ‘natural’ options, such as stevia, brings the additional benefits of consumer friendly labelling to the mix.

Purity challenge

Extracts from the leaves of the stevia plant contain a mixture of sweet components called steviol glycosides. The two most well known are rebaudioside A (RA) and stevioside. Additional sweet compounds include steviolbioside, dulcoside A, reb B, reb C, reb D, reb F and rubusoside, among others. Different steviol glycosides have different sweetness intensities and taste characteristics. Stevia extract is considered to have 200 to 300 times the sweetness of sucrose.

One of the common issues associated with high-potency sweeteners like stevia is that they can cause a bitter aftertaste in formulations – this is associated to high levels of RA. Regular stevia products with lower RA purity tend to be highly soluble, but exhibit a detectable bitterness or lingering aftertaste. However, when the RA purity is increased to improve the taste, cost typically rises and solubility becomes an issue.

Many stevia products that have a high concentration of RA must be formulated with other sweeteners in order to mask an aftertaste that is too bitter for consumers. However, applying a particular composition of steviol glycosides can facilitate the removal of those bitter/liquorice aftertastes and the need for masking.

Shifting consumer attitudes 

Consumers are increasingly looking for natural sweetening solutions that help them reduce calories and sugars, but they’re not willing to sacrifice exceptional taste. In fact, the most important benefit to a consumer when choosing a sweetener is that it’s ‘a good balance of taste and health’. Stevia ranked second highest in this attribute, second only to honey [2].

However, food and drink manufacturers have often found themselves caught in the middle of shifting attitudes and consumer confusion surrounding sweeteners. In order to meet those increasingly complex needs, manufacturers now use a combination of ingredients to reduce calories and sugars, and deliver the taste and texture experiences that consumers expect.

In the case of stevia sweeteners, many people tried some of the early products sweetened with stevia and didn’t like the taste. Since then, further research and understanding about the taste characteristics of the different sweet components found in stevia (steviol glycosides) means that better tasting stevia sweeteners are now available.

Identifying just one sweetener that performs exactly like sugar but without contributing any calories is a challenge. The key to reducing calories and sugars without impacting the taste experience is finding the right mix of solutions. Right now, there isn’t a holy grail when it comes to sweeteners – sugar replacement is never really a one-for-one exchange. However, the development of the newer, improved taste stevia products, used in combination with other ingredients from the sugar reduction toolbox, is certainly moving in the right direction.

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