Whether one likes it or not artificial sweeteners have become a part and parcel of those who are constrained from consuming sugar for various reasons. Saccharine had dominated the artificial sweetener market till about 3 decades ago and subsequently chemicals like Cyclamates, Aspartame, Acesulfame and Sucralose got them selves established because of doubts about the safety of saccharine. Latest entrance in the field is Stevia sugar, a sweetener extracted from the plant species Stevia rebaudiana, grown abundantly in South America. Japanese were the earliest to use Stevia sugar, their sweetener market being dominated by this plant derived material to the extent of 40%. Rebaudioside A, the most acceptable glycoside in the leaves of the plant is approved for use in foods in many countries and to day Chinese dominate the global market by supplying low cost sweetener preparations from Stevia leaves. Being at least 300 times sweeter than sucrose, Rebaudioside A has all the credentials to out pace other sweeteners in the coming years. Now comes the news that attempts to produce Steviol glycosides using the fermentation route have succeeded and it is possible that the market price of Stevia sugar may come down significantly once commercial production becomes a reality.
"Stevia sweeteners have attracted great interest and R&D spend by the food and beverage industry in recent years following FDA GRAS (generally recognised as safe) status of high purity Reb-A in late 2008, and subsequently other steviol glycosides. European approval, according to the FAO/WHO JECFA specifications, is expected this year. While all the steviol gycosides currently available are derived from the native Paraguauan plant, butEvolva and Abunda have been quietly working on proprietary technology to make them viafermentation in yeast. "This process bypasses the complex logistics associated with the traditional cultivation, processing and refining of stevia plants, and allows pure stevia sweetness components to be produced," said Evolva. Steviol glycosides produced in this way are still a few years from market. The main task for the next 12 to 18 months will be to further improve the yield and transfer to the scale-up phase. However the development could eventually mean cheaper steviol gycosides will be available for food and beverage manufacturers. CEO Neil Goldsmith told FoodNavigator.com: "The logic of the approach is to achieve better economies, but I wouldn't want to go into more details than that". He said that the whole spectrum of steviol glycosides can be produced using the method. This would allow manufacturers to use the blends best suited to application needs. Goldsmith expects that by the time Evolva is ready to market its fermentation-produced sweetness components the full spectrum of steviol glycosides will have GRAS status and novel foods approval. This means that the company will only have to seek substantial equivalence – a much quicker process".
It is interesting that both the cola giants, Coke and Pepsi have entered Stevia market and are offering their own brands besides using it in their diet beverages. Though there are still some lingering safety questions with Stevia, large majority of scientific studies have established that it is safe for human consumption. That people in some of the South American countries have been using Stevia leaves for centuries further strengthens the safety credentials of this natural non-carbohydrate sweetener. While the technical feasibility of production through microorganisms has been established beyond doubt, the commercial viability will depend very much on the yield and this requires enormous investment, long time and intensive efforts. One can only hope that this valuable sugar substitute will become cheap and affordable to consumers badly in need of non-caloric sweeteners for their daily use due to compulsions like diabetes, over weight and obesity.