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Stevia is finally here. Sweet sales to follow?

No-calorie, natural sweetner that's already a hit in the U.S.

A natural substitute is poised to hit the sweet spot for grocers this year. Stevia, a no-calorie sweetener derived from the leaves of its namesake plant, got the green light for mainstream use in November.

Previously, stevia leaf was only allowed in natural health products. But a lengthy review by Health Canada found no health concerns. So now the extract from stevia leaves, called steviol glycoside, can be used as an ingredient in everyday consumer packaged foods.

The decision will undoubtedly open the floodgates to a new generation of products containing the sweetener, including yogurt, snacks, juice and soft drinks. And in the sugar aisle, those blue, pink and yellow sachets will have company: Stevia is also sold as a sweetener for coffee and tea.

“Food and beverage manufacturers that we work with in Canada have been actively testing with stevia for years now and were just waiting for the ingredient to be approved,” says Justin Mears, director of retail sales at Naples, Fla.-based Pyure Brands, a global supplier of stevia.

Based on stevia’s performance in other countries, hopes are high. Just seven months after approval as a food additive in the U.S., in December 2008, stevia product sales topped $95 million.

After approval in France, in 2009, stevia almost instantly grew that country’s sluggish tabletop sweetener category by 22 per cent, according to grocery research firm Mintel.

In just the first few months of 2012, more than 200 products sweetened with stevia launched in the European Union.

“The growing obesity epidemic and focus on sugar’s role will drive more people toward sugar substitutes” and attract consumers who want to avoid artificial ingredients, says Nirvana Chapman, global food science analyst at Mintel.

Cargill is one company making a big splash with stevia in Canada. Its Truvia brand is used as an ingredient in 50 products worldwide and sold as a sweetener in eight countries.

Cargill developed Truvia with Coca-Cola, and the beverage giant uses it in Vitaminwater Zero and mid-calorie versions of Sprite and Fanta (under the Select brand). These were tested in four U.S. cities last year. PepsiCo uses Pure Via, a stevia-based sweetener from Merisant Co.

Mark Brooks, global consumer products director for Truvia, says the brand is expected to hit store shelves in Canada this spring. A US$30-million marketing campaign is running in the U.S. and will likely be adapted for Canada.

Out of the gate, Cargill will educate consumers about stevia and generate trial through coupons and in-store demos.

“In the U.S., we have a 45.8 per cent repeat rate, so once people try us, they like us,” says Brooks. “Our big focus is going to be helping get over whatever barriers there are to trial.” For example, people don’t want to mess with their sacred morning coffee.

As a sweetener, Truvia has competition. At a Tops store in Niagara Falls, N.Y., recently, Cargill’s Truvia held a prominent top-shelf position and six facings near Equal, Splenda and Sweet ’n Low. But Truvia was more expensive–a box of 40 sachets cost $4.99, compared to $2.99 for 100 Sweet ’n Lows.

Mintel’s Chapman thinks stevia’s main challenges will be consumer awareness and taste aversion. “Stevia is often cited as having a bitter, metallic taste.”

But as manufacturers learn to purify the taste profile, consumers will likely get used to it, Chapman believes. And with more people fretting over their health, stevia’s “zero calorie, natural image” positions it well for the future, she adds.

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