There is plenty of money to be made in sweeteners; in 2012 the global sweetener market was at $77.5 billion and is expected to reach $97.2 billion by 2017. While sugar controls roughly 85% of the sweetener market, many Americans are trying to cut down on their consumption of sugar by switching to natural zero calorie sugar substitutes, which is why companies that grow, produce, or utilize stevia (the fastest growing natural zero calorie sugar substitute on the market) are worth watching. For those who don’t know, stevia is a shrub that is native to South America and contains roughly thirty different steviol glycosides. Some of these compounds are called rebaudiosides, with rebaudioside A (Reb A) being the most abundant and the sweetest (and least bitter). In the past, stevia could only be found in products in Asia and on shelves in health food/exotic stores in the U.S. (but labeled as a dietary supplement and NOT a sweetener or food due to FDA bureaucracy).
But in the past few years stevia has found its way into the mainstream market as companies like The Coca-Cola Company (NYSE:KO), PepsiCo, Inc. (NYSE:PEP), and Monster Beverage Corp (NASDAQ:MNS) have incorporated the sweet extract into its growing lines of zero to low calorie beverage products. Even Starbucks Corporation (NASDAQ:SBUX) adds stevia to sweeten its canned Starbucks energy drink, Refreshers. As stevia continues to evolve and gain in popularity, the World Health Organization sees stevia could eventually replace 20-30% of all dietary sweeteners.
While some may see stevia as the “holy grail” of zero calorie natural sugar substitutes, there have been issues that have slowed the progression of stevia, such as a bitter aftertaste characteristic of the product. Stevia is also expensive to produce compared to the cheap chemical artificial sweeteners like aspartame or Splenda, add to that the consistency of the supply line of the actual stevia leaf can vary. However, these issues are being addressed by stevia growers and producers, and the next generation of stevia extracts appear to be closer to the “holy grail” of a natural zero calorie sugar substitute.
Recently giant food conglomerate, Cargill announced it had partnered with the Swiss biosynthetic pharmaceutical company, Evolva (EVE:SW), to develop a more consistent and less expensive stevia sweetener via Evolva’s microbial fermentation-based process. This is big news for the future of stevia because a microbial fermentation-based process does not have to rely on soil conditions or weather, and stevia can be manufactured anywhere, thus having the potential of guaranteeing an endless supply line of stevia.
Through the microbial fermentation, the manufacturer has the capability to process the key sweet individual components of stevia using low-cost plant sugars, and allows for the individual components of stevia, regardless of how minute, to be developed creating blends in any volume, which then could open the door for these manufacturers to fine-tune its stevia to local tastes. But what would be most attractive is that, because the fermentation process does not require the entire plant, the method could conceivably shave upwards of 70% off the cost of producing stevia extracts.
Cargill and Evolva are not the only companies developing stevia via a fermentation-based process. Stevia First Corp (OTCMKTS:STVF), an early-stage agribusiness based in California’s Central Valley, with its sights on being the first vertically integrated stevia company, has been developing its own stevia microbial fermentation-based process (through a license by Vineland Research and Innovation Centre of Canada). Recently the company announced its “Beyond Reb A” research program, aimed at producing not only Reb A, but also Reb D and Reb X, two glycosides found in small amounts in the stevia leaves that have been identified as the next-generation of stevia sweeteners.
Over the past three months there has been what appears to be positive movement in the company’s development. In May, Stevia First announced it reached pilot-scale functionality and continues toward commercial production capability of its fermentation process. Then in a July 8th press release, Stevia First Corp (OTCMKTS:STVF) announced that it was able to demonstrate the production of the more desirable and high-value steviol glycosides, such as the rare Reb D and Reb X, via its fermentation technology. If mass-produced at a lower cost, this would give Stevia First an attractive commercial advantage.