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The Green Sugar Substitute

With over 70 million diabetic people in India, shifting to Stevia as a natural replacement for sugar makes big business sense for all stakeholders

Photo Credit : Shutterstock

With all global and local food and beverage (F&B) industry incorporating the “health & wellness” plank in their respective product offerings, cutting down the sugar content is the first sign of showing “we care”. Multinational F&B firms bet big on that. And aware consumers quickly shift to less sugary food items provided there is no change in quality or taste.

For a large number of Indian consumers, cutting down on sugar is extremely significant as India is virtually the diabetic capital of the world that is expected to have over 11 crore diabetic patients in the next 18 years, says a global report. Add to that the World Health Organization fact sheet on diabetes that estimates 3.4 million deaths in India due to high blood sugar every year.
So what is the solution? Artificial sugar substitutes such as aspartame, sucralose, and saccharin are passé. They not only leave an after-taste but have limited application. In comes Stevia, a sweetener and natural sugar substitute extracted from the leaves of the plant species Stevia rebaudiana. And championing the cause of stevia is PureCircle, a Malaysia-based company that has its commercial headquarters in the United States of America and is listed on the main market of the London Stock Exchange. In India, PureCircle Natural Ingredient India is established as a 100 per cent subsidiary of PureCircle. Within a short span of 30-months, PureCircle-promoted-and-patented stevia has found practical usage from top brands — Maaza Gold, Fanta, Mirinda, 7Up, Mother Dairy Dietz, Tang, and Sugar Free Green. These are some of the examples of brands that have already incorporated stevia as a natural sugar substitute thereby effectively reducing the sugar content in their respective products by 15-30 per cent.  Says Tarun Arora, chief operating officer and director Zydus Wellness: “Stevia is a natural zero calorie sweetener that has potential to enable calorie reduction for the entire family. Zydus Wellness has launched Sugarfree Green with this vision. We value the partnership with PureCircle in this journey.”

According to experts, the active compounds of stevia are steviol glycosides that have up to 300 times the sweetness of sugar and have a wide variety of application. Not only can the pure stevia extracts be used as a sugar substitute, each of its 40-odd molecules can be used to enhance taste and flavour of F&B products. In India, a wide variety of tests and research are currently on to use stevia in local delicacies such as gulab jamun, rasgulla, jalebi, yogurt, juice, ice cream and a host of other products.

Says Ajay Chandran, “There is a lot more sugar being consumed in categories other than beverages. These include traditional sweets where stevia can help play a part in moderation of calorie.” Chandran is senior director (South Asia), for PureCircle.

Decoding Stevia
What is stevia and how does it work? “It is natural and safe. It is heat-stable, pH-stable, and not fermentable. Major global regulatory organisations have approved highly purified stevia extracts as safe for the consumption by the general population, which includes children and pregnant women,” says Chandran. His company has already made an announcement of committing investment of over Rs 1,200 crore in India in research, local cultivation, testing the application across product category among other things.

What is the role of PureCircle India? “It is the world’s leading producer of high-purity stevia ingredients for the global food and beverage industry and a force for good in the world. Our vision is to lead the global expansion of stevia as the next mass volume, natural-origin sweetener. We are either exclusive or main suppliers of stevia sweeteners and flavours to almost every major company and brand,” says Chandran. PureCircle is a vertically-integrated company — from plant breeding to harvesting, extraction and purification, Chandran adds.

Currently, the company is said to be sourcing around 25,000 tonnes of stevia leaf from China. This, by the way, accounts for 90 per cent of the company’s demand annually. Going forward, the India arm of PureCircle is mandated to be one of the potential stevia-sourcing countries by 2020 when half of the stevia requirement is pegged to come from countries other than China. In India, the company is already in talks with farmers and their associations offering technical knowledge, support, stevia saplings, and financial assistance among others so as to encourage local cultivation of high-quality stevia plants.

Origin & Application
In Hindi it is called by several names, prominent among those are “Mithi Patti” or “Mithi Tulasi”. Globally, it is best known as stevia plant from which stevia extracts are developed as natural replacement for sugar and artificial sugar substitutes. Post processing, it looks like a white powder. In India, PureCircle is already in partnership with companies including Mondelez, Tata Chemicals, Coca-Cola India, PepsiCo India, Mother Dairy and Zydus Wellness among others to help them cut down the sugar content and replace the same with stevia. After all the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India had cleared the use of stevia in carbonated drinks in November 2015. Following this, a number of brands have launched stevia-incorporated beverages. PepsiCo 7Up Revive, a hydrotonic drink that uses stevia and claims to have 30 per cent less sugar than colas, was the first product launched in India with stevia as an ingredient.

According to Chandran, stevia can have several applications particularly in flavoured milk, yogurt and yogurt drinks, iced tea, syrup drinks, packaged fruit juice, confectionary, powdered soft drinks, ketchups, cereals and several indulgence categories such as ice-creams besides local innovations.

Historically, the plant Stevia rebaudiana has been used for more than 1,500 years by the Guaraní tribes of South America. For hundreds of years, the stevia leaves have been used in Brazil and Paraguay to sweeten local teas and medicines. But its incorporation in modern day food started in early 1970’s in Japan, followed by China. It was in 2008 when US FDA approved Reb A, purified to 95 per cent, as an approved sweetener in food, opening the door for similar adoption world-wide, says Chandran. This leads to a very obvious question: What is the role of PureCircle if stevia can be grown locally and is currently being processed locally too? “The established technical and marketing infrastructure is absolutely critical to our customers as stevia is not one molecule and different matrix have different taste challenges. The knowledge of decades of product development is our USP that is now available in a new market such as India through our South Asia lab,” says Chandran adding that PureCircle is a vertically integrated company that controls the global supply chain that delivers the most innovative zero calorie natural stevia sweetener. And this is hard to replicate without spending millions of dollars in R&D, he adds.

So what is the short-term agenda of PureCircle? The company expects that by 2020, there will be a major sugar reduction across categories such as juice, carbonated drinks and Indian sweets, and increase in home cooking with stevia. “In addition, we expect that stevia becomes an important arsenal in the hands of public health practitioners and consumers to drive down calorie consumption in their fight with obesity or diabetes,” says Chandran. That is why perhaps most leading F&B players in South Asia such as Zydus Sugar Free Green, Nestle, Coke, PepsiCo, Elephant House and Mother Dairy have all launched their products with PureCircle’s high purity stevia in the South Asian Market. Till date, over 100 different products have been launched in India and Sri Lanka alone. With the ever rising awareness in the country, we are expecting many more launches in next few months with PureCircle Stevia, shares Chandran.

Cultivating Stevia
In April 2016 during his visit to India, Jason Hecker, President (Group sales and marketing) at PureCircle had said that by 2021 the company expects 5,000 hectares of farm land that would grow stevia in India. “Once we reach the capacity of about 15,000 tonnes of stevia leaf a year in India, we’ll look at putting up a processing plant here,” he had said. According to Chandran, a farmer could potentially earn up to Rs 4 lakh a year by growing stevia on one hectare of farmland as the plant needs very little water compared to say, sugarcane. The only possible challenge could be in the high upfront investment of around Rs 1.2 lakh per hectare (Rs 3 per stevia sapling). But the good news is that farmers can make a hefty profit while selling stevia due to very high margins. Dried stevia leaves sell for Rs 120-130 per kg with almost 40-50 per cent margin.

Therefore, it is most important that not only the dependence on sugar decreases but the entire stevia supply-chain — stevia farmers to stevia processor to stevia incorporated food items — gets all the necessary support from both the central and state governments. Presently, India consumes around 28 million tonnes of sugar.

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