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The natural sweetener stevia looks set to become the next big thing, according to a report from consumer research firm Mintel. Since December 2008, when the FDA approved use of rebaudioside A (an active ingredient of stevia) in U.S. foods and beverages, the stevia market has undergone tremendous growth: by mid-July 2009, sales topped $95 million, in contrast to the $21 million racked up for all of 2008. The report forecasts that the stevia market could surpass $2 billion by the end of 2011.
“The FDA’s approval of stevia in food and drink opened the door for this market’s explosion,” notes David Browne, senior analyst at Chicago-based Mintel. “New product activity has accelerated in recent years, and since most categories with stevia applications remain untapped, we expect many more stevia-infused product introductions in the next few years.”
In the first eight months of 2009, Mintel’s Global New Products Database (GNPD) monitored the introduction of over 110 US food, drink and health care products containing stevia, and found that annual new product activity for sweetener more than doubled between 2007 and 2008.
Despite such gains, the company’s exclusive consumer survey found that almost 70 percent of Americans have never heard of stevia, more than six in 10 (62 percent) have no interest in trying it, and 11 percent think stevia is unsafe and should be avoided.
“Step one is for manufacturers to get the word out.” counseled Browne. “At this stage, heavy demo-ing of stevia products in stores, along with copious distribution of free samples, are just as important as promoting stevia’s all-natural, zero-calorie positioning.”
Another potential stumbling block for stevia is flavor, which is currently being tinkered with by a variety of companies, leading to several different-tasting formulations. “If someone tries a stevia-sweetened drink with an off-putting aftertaste, it’s logical to assume that person will be a tough sell for stevia products in the future," said Browne.
According to Mintel’s report, 25 percent of people said they might be interested in stevia, although they haven’t tried it yet, and just over one in 10 (11 percent) said they’ve tried stevia and plan to keep buying it.