Despite a rough start, stevia's future is looking pretty sweet.
According to a recent study from the NPD Group, the all-natural, zero-calorie sweetener, which received the go-ahead from the Food and Drug Administration in late 2008 after years of classification as a dietary supplement, is showing growth consistent with many established artificial sweeteners. Thirty-five percent of respondents said they already consumed or would consider consuming a product made with stevia, compared to 39% for aspartame and 51% for sucralose, per NPD data.
Manufacturers, especially those in the beverage category, are showing increased interest. Honest Tea recently introduced a green tea infused with maqui berry, a South American superfruit, and sweetened with organic stevia. In April, Kraft Foods launched Crystal Light Pure Fitness, also sweetened with stevia and marketed as “the first nationally available low-calorie fitness beverage.” Brands like Sobe, O.N.E. and Tropicana have also added to the mix.
Being all-natural and calorie-free makes stevia an enticing prospect. But price and a licorice-like aftertaste have kept its growth in check.
“Stevia hasn't flooded the market, and one of the biggest reasons is the taste,” said Garima Goel-Lal, senior analyst with market research firm Mintel.
Companies are tweaking the taste factor to bring it more in line with regular sugar. They're also working to streamline the economies of scale for stevia, which originates from Peru and is grown mainly in China.
For stevia to become a truly sweet proposition, manufacturers need to work on these factors and also on educating consumers — many of whom don't yet trust stevia, said Goel-Lal.