Over the past half year, stevia has been the focus of attention as the search for a perfect natural sweetener continues. But why are the birds circling when the ingredient has not been approved in the two major Western markets - the United States and Europe?
The very simple answer is that it's only a matter of time, and unless companies start lining up for a slice of the action, they could find themselves pushed out of the picture.
In Europe, EFSA has already started a new scientific evaluation of the ingredient.
The agency in May received a mandate from the European Commission to carry out a safety assessment of stevia. Its scientific panel on food additives - AFC - is currently waiting for more information from the petitioning company in order to complete its evaluation.
In the US, FDA said it is also soon expecting to be petitioned to approve stevia, which will set the wheels of approval into motion on the other side of the Atlantic.
Although around a dozen other countries currently approve stevia for use in foods and beverages - including Japan, Brazil and China - the United States and Europe have lagged behind due to a lack of adequate information to support its safe use.
But as more information starts sifting through, it will only be a matter of time before evaluations are completed. And unless these unveil any unexpected safety issues, we can almost certainly expect the ingredient to trickle through the regulatory processes.
A number of food and beverage manufacturers that have stayed ahead of the market have already started considering the ingredient for their products.
Ingredient firms, from their side, are positioning themselves to capture a juicy market share as soon as regulatory approval is achieved.
So what is this magic ingredient that is causing so much interest?
Derived from the South American plant stevia rebaudiana, stevia is said to have up to 300 times the sweetness of sugar. Its taste has a slower onset and longer duration than that of sugar, and developments in processing methods have already claimed to have solved the problem of the ingredient's liquorice-like aftertaste.
If it is ultimately as easy to use in food and beverage formulations as it claims to be, stevia's 'natural' label could see it take prime spot as the holy grail of sweeteners, as manufacturers increasingly try to adapt their formulations to the demands of the more health conscious consumer.
Stevia received a huge vote of confidence earlier this year after industry leaders Coca-Cola and Cargill teamed up to market a version of the sweetener.
Coca-Cola has filed 24 patent applications for the ingredient in the US, and media reports claim that the firms are gathering information to petition FDA for approval.
Other manufacturers are lining up behind the heavyweights, hoping the path to regulatory approval will be cleared by those with the muscle and resources to move things forward.
Ingredient firms are getting into the starting position too.
Malaysia-based PureCircle recently announced its floatation on London's AIM in order to raise US$50m. This, it said, will be used to expand its stevia production, with the firm hoping to secure an advantage in anticipation of an explosion in demand.
With a proprietary process technology for the extraction of high-purity extract Rebaudioside-A under its belt, PureCircle plans to expand production capacity three-fold over the next two years.
Earlier this month, another company - Blue California in the US - said it has finalized its own production process for Rebaudioside A isolation, which it said will allow its product to compete with sugar on a price basis.
Blue California plans to go into industrial production early next year. Although this will first be on a small-scale for dietary supplement use (which is currently approved in the US), the firm said it will be ready to charge forward once approval for food and beverages is granted.
The market researcher Freedonia has suggested that stevia could well fill in the gap in an imperfect sweetener market.
"The quest for the perfect sweetener - clean sweet flavor with no off-taste, non-caloric, and no bad health effects - remains unresolved (…) Stevia is perhaps the product upon which more recent hopes have been placed," it wrote in an exclusive article for FoodNavigator-USA.com last month.
The hopes are most definitely there, and the Western food industry is positioning itself for the imminent introduction of the new ingredient.
Of course, nothing is confirmed until it is signed and sealed. But companies are nonetheless getting into position, and those that wait too long will soon no longer find room on the starting line.
Lorraine Heller is editor of FoodNavigator-USA and is a specialist writer on food industry issues. With an international focus, she has lived and worked in the UK, Cyprus and France.
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