Stevia supply chains: Honing in on market volatility, fermentation & bioconversion methods
03 May 2023 --- Like all agronomic crops, stevia is vulnerable to weather disruptions. A large proportion of the world’s stevia crop is produced in China, where widespread drought limited yields in 2022. However, despite this downturn in production, major stevia suppliers continue to report adequate quantities of product to meet current obligations.
FoodIngredientsFirst takes a closer look at stevia supply chains and what is driving the demand for this sweetener, with key suppliers sharing their insights.
Maria Teresa Scardigli, executive director at the International Stevia Council (ISC), says there is an increased leaf capacity for plant-based stevia in regions like Latin America. “We are seeing some farmers worldwide transition to other crops based on industry demand.”
“Next-generation stevia made from new production technologies such as fermentation and bioconversion can help offset supply issues and crop disruptions while offering great and clean tasting stevia on the market.”
The pursuit of better-tasting stevia
The stevia supply chain’s ability to understand the total global production forecast, along with new production technologies to access the smallest, best-tasting parts of the stevia leaf, have enabled the stevia sector keep up with the pace of innovation in the sugar reduction space and product reformulation, comments Scardigli.
Both consumers and manufacturers are looking for better-tasting stevia with a preference for natural/plant-based stevia.
Many companies are investing in agronomic research to improve stevia strains, including increasing the concentration of rare steviol glycosides such as Reb M and Reb D.
Alongside this, ISC continues to see investment in alternative approaches to nature-identical steviol glycosides, using novel processing methods and techniques, like bioconversion.
“Other companies are investing in diversifying the plant-based stevia source of supply from different regions, including Latin America, in improving the taste,” says Scardigli.
As sweetness continues to come under increasing scrutiny globally, increased access to a wide variety of steviol glycosides, including rare and unique strains, helps address the issues of off taste, bitterness and lingering aftertaste with the limited choice of previous-generation stevia sweeteners.
Scardigli adds: “We are seeing these attributes lessened with this next-generation stevia. As manufacturers think of their sugar reduction toolbox, we encourage them to reconsider stevia as the stevia of yesterday is not the stevia of today.”
US-based Sweegen’s supply of sweetener ingredients, such as the highly sought-after Reb M and D and the company’s expansive stevia portfolio, are made by a clean bioconversion method that is non-GMO.
“This sustainable way to produce stevia ingredients enables us to be in a pole position globally. Manufacturing in Europe and Asia enables us to be accessible, consistent, reliable and meaningful with brands that need a reliable supply of sweetener ingredients for F&B creation and product development,” says Casey McCormick, vice president of global innovation at Sweegen.
Climate disruption impacts supply
Mavis Ran, business unit director at Howtian, a China-based stevia producer, says the supply security of agricultural raw materials is a general challenge for plant-based ingredients, with stevia being “no exception.”
“These challenges are driven by several factors, starting from macro issues like climate change, down to those more specific to stevia – such as the natural inconsistency of the key sweet components in stevia leaves.”
Ran believes stevia is less susceptible to common weather-related challenges than other natural sweeteners.
“As an example, the plantation of monk fruit is typically only viable in a very small number of regions, whereas stevia isn’t as restricted and can thrive in a greater variety of regions or climates. Still, weather disruption always has the potential to impact the availability and supply of stevia negatively,” she explains.
Howtian has implemented a range of measures to mitigate these risks, such as diversifying plantation regions and developing leaf variants that are better suited for different climatic conditions.
Moreover, the income-earning potential of farming communities can vary vastly depending on the crops they grow. “Some years, a crop may be very profitable, while not so much the next year. Since it is farming, weather will always have a fundamental impact,” underscores Ran.
“Case in point, the glycoside yield and content of the stevia leaf can vary from harvest to harvest and resultantly, the financial health of an individual farm can be dependent on such circumstances. This, in turn, determines farmers’ willingness to work with stevia in any particular year and hence, the manufacturing output we can expect from any particular growing season.”
Nate Yates, global platform leader for Sugar Reduction at Ingredion, says stevia supply can face challenges and disruptions from weather, pests and other conventional supply chain delays as with any agricultural crop.
“PureCircle by Ingredion is in the best position to navigate these challenges because it is vertically integrated from stevia seedling development to finished ingredients. PureCircle is not currently experiencing any issues with its stevia supply chain.”
These investments in stevia production and a network of contracted farmers increase PureCircle’s transparency for stevia ingredients, minimize stevia leaf aggregators’ impact on stevia supply and reduce the number of unknowns for F&B brands, Yates details.
Rising costs are causing wider industry problems
Meanwhile, in today’s uncertain political climate and with a volatile global economy, many factors impact the cost and supply of different ingredients. The rising cost of energy, inflation, and increases in labor costs are all putting pressure on many industries, stevia included.
According to Howtian, the good news is that because stevia is a natural extract, it is a comparably simpler and cleaner process compared to artificial sweeteners.
“Unlike ingredients that depend on chemical processing which can be affected by multiple cost impactors, natural stevia relies only on limited processing with fewer auxiliary materials,” comments Ran.
In addition, Howtian uses a clean extraction technology that saves 60% in water consumption and benefits from similar energy usage efficiencies. “So while we’re not immune to current economic conditions and macro trends, we are less affected by the marketplace volatility,” she notes.
The COVID-19 fallout
In the years of the COVID-19 pandemic, the stevia supply chain faced its most challenging test, recalls Ran.
“Despite the most difficult and trying of circumstances, the robustness of our stevia supply withstood the pandemic and proved its resilience, thanks in no small part to our farming communities and our global distribution partners.”
For Howtian, R&D and innovation has led to increased steviol glycoside content in new leaf varieties and much higher extraction yields. This is driving down the cost of stevia, making it more affordable and stable over the last few years.
“In 2022, a critical milestone for stevia was reached when we saw the industry’s highest ever Reb A yield of 12% from our newest leaf variety. This was welcome news for F&B manufacturers worldwide as stevia was more affordable and accessible than ever,” recalls Ran.
Howtian’s current breeding season finished at the end of April. Based on the company’s latest estimates, it forecasts a healthy growth of plantation areas in 2023. “It’s a leading indicator that the price of major stevia products will remain stable and at historically cost-effective levels this year,” Ran asserts.
Yates at PureCircle by Ingredion says that precision fermentation and bioconversion are technologies accelerating the company’s capabilities to deliver the best taste performance in stevia solutions cost-efficiently and at scale.
Scardigli at ISC says new technologies to stevia production continue to gain traction in the marketplace.
“Some ingredient manufacturers now produce stevia sweeteners via precision fermentation and/or bioconversion. This fermentation approach shifts production from the field to the fermentation vat, offering a more reliable and consistent supply. It’s typically used to access molecules produced in limited quantities by the stevia leaf, such as Reb M and Reb D, considered to be among the best-tasting steviol glycosides,” she continues.
“These molecules are also among the rarest, comprising less than 1% of the stevia leaf. There are related environmental benefits, as fermentation requires less water and land and produces a lower carbon footprint than traditional plant-sourced stevia.”
The bioconversion production method starts with steviol glycosides extracted from the stevia leaf that are then converted to different targeted steviol glycosides, such as Reb M, Reb D or other unique glycosides, Scardigli tells us.
“Bioconversion mimics the maturation process which naturally occurs within the stevia plant and offers another pathway to obtain sweet compounds produced in very small quantities in the stevia leaf. Precision fermentation and bioconversion make it possible to achieve a more consistent, reliable supply of nature-identical ingredients, and does so in a way that is scalable, economical, and more sustainable than traditional production methods,” she comments.
Sweegen is seeing notable themes of streamlining regulatory obstacles for stevia technologies.
“All stevia isn’t created the same,” claims McCormick. “CODEX, the international food safety organization, created a framework for a handful of stevia technologies, including Sweegen’s ones created with a proprietary clean bioconversion method. This framework allows countries to adopt the framework to access ingredients rapidly.”
Creating a sugar-like experience with a foundation of stevia is on-trend. Still, the white space is taste modulation for building back flavor, mouthfeel and bulk in F&B applications.
Moreover, PureCircle by Ingredion continues to look for ways to diversify its supply of stevia ingredients, including geographical diversity within and outside of China, as well as being the only supplier to produce stevia molecules through all major stevia technologies, including precision fermentation and bioconversion.
“This ensures reliable scale and supply of the best tasting stevia ingredients,” concludes Yates.
By Elizabeth Green
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