Stevia—A Natural Way To Reduce Sugar In Bakery And Confectionery

Thursday, September 21st, 2017

Stevia is emerging as a major global commodity as the food industry embraces it as a natural, sweet and zero-calorie ingredient. It is fast being used in virtually every food sector, including bakery and confectionery. By Chris Peterson, communications manager, and Maria Teresa Scardigli, executive director, International Stevia Council

Stevia extracts have long been considered suitable for a broad range of products from beverages to table top sweeteners. And combined with the right ingredients, stevia can be incredibly useful for healthy baking. The potential benefits are huge. Nations around the world are facing an obesity epidemic. Stevia, used as a common sweetener or a confectionery ingredient, can be a part of the solution.

A Global Obesity Epidemic

Obesity and diabetes are quickly becoming a top concern for health care community and global regulators. Since 1980, obesity rates have more than doubled, according to 2015 statistics from the World Health Organisation. Nearly two billion adults worldwide were overweight in 2014, and 600 million were considered obese. Additionally, 42 million children under the age of five were reported overweight in 2013.

Likewise, diabetes is a major cause for concern across the globe. The International Federation of Diabetes reports that by 2040, one in every 10 adults will have diabetes worldwide, and according to the 7th edition of The International Diabetes Federation’s World Atlas on Diabetes 2015 report, China has the highest number of people with diabetes, at 107 million. India and the United States rank next, with 69 million people and 29 million people, respectively.

Excess sugar consumption has been implicated as part of the problem for the obesity and diabetes epidemics. An excess of sugary drinks, snacks and baked goods have become dietary staples instead of occasional treats. However, new products—especially beverages—have embraced stevia to either complement or replace sugar. Baked goods and confections are also sugar-heavy products with potential for sugar reduction.

An Eye On Sugar Reduction

Governments and policy makers around the world are increasingly worried about what is now being called the ‘obesity epidemic,’ and the fallout on a global scale is devastating. From diabetes to heart disease, health officials are calling for decreases in calorie intake. Stevia—a 100 percent naturally derived zero-calorie sweetener—can be a part of the solution to calorie and sugar reduction in food, beverage and confectionery.

The last few years have seen a dramatic refocusing of attention on sugar reduction in both products and recommendations for daily personal diets. Here are just a few notable examples:

  • In 2015, the World Health Organisation recommended limiting fats and sugars to combat obesity.
  • In 2015, England’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition recommended guidelines to reduce the daily intake of calories from added sugars to five percent of total calories, or seven tea-spoons daily.
  • In 2014, Mexico raised taxes on sugary drinks to one peso per litre to combat the country’s growing obesity epidemic.
  • The US Food and Drug Administration, as part of its proposal to update the nutrition facts label of packaged foods, proposed including a percent daily value for added sugars, which amounts to 50 g or less of sugar for a 2,000 calorie diet. This percent daily value is based on the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines’ recommendations that the daily intake of calories from added sugars not exceed 10 percent of total calories.

As more regulatory and scientific bodies follow suit, stevia is well-positioned to continue to take the lead as a mainstream, natural sweetener. Already, stevia is approved for use as an ingredient in more than 100 countries, and more than five billion consumers around the world have access to stevia products.

Companies around the world, including those selling ingredients and bakery and confectionery goods, are introducing stevia into their products. Not only does this give those businesses options for avoiding sugar taxes, but it encourages a healthier lifestyle for consumers.

Stevia: A Safe, Natural Solution

Stevia extract is one of the most positively viewed non-sugar sweeteners, according to data from the International Stevia Council. Its strengths lie in its naturalness and the fact that it adds zero calories when used as an ingredient. The potential implications for bakery and confectionery could be huge.

For decades, high purity stevia leaf extracts have been approved for use in foods and beverages in Japan. In the last five years, leading food safety and regulatory agencies across the world have issued positive safety opinions on and/or allowed the safe use of purified stevia leaf extracts in foods and beverages.

What exactly is stevia, and how are the extracts used for sweetness?

Stevia is a small shrub native to the region of South America where the borders of Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil meet. There are 240 close relatives of stevia and they are all herbs or shrubs originating from the tropical and semitropical areas of North, Central and South America.

The sweetness found in the stevia plant is released by steeping its dried leaves in water, filtering and separating the liquid from the leaves and stems, and further purifying the plant extract with either water and/or food grade alcohol— all conventional plant extraction methods. The result is a naturally sourced, high intensity sweetener that is zero calorie and 200-350 times sweeter than sugar. The reason for the sweetness of the stevia plant lies in the existence of certain sweet compounds in the plant’s leaves known as steviol glycosides.

There are between 30 and 40 known steviol glycosides in the stevia leaf with stevioside and rebaudioside A being the most prevalent. Purified stevia extracts are up to 200-350 times sweeter than sugar, they are heat and pH stable, are zero-calorie and do not impact blood glucose levels at the levels of use.

Stevia In Bakery And Confectionery

Bakery and confections are challenging categories for sugar reduction. It is a two part challenge for developers in these categories because they need to replace not only the sweetness but also the functionality of sugar. Stevia provides only the sweetness portion. Bulking agents such as fibres and complex carbohydrates are therefore required for browning, mouthfeel, and performance. Research has found that stevia works well with bulking agents in sweetness potency and improvement of sweetness quality.

Bakery products are a logical place for sugar reduction via stevia extract. From a consumer standpoint, stevia is an enormously attractive option. International Stevia Council research indicates that key consumer drivers include naturalness and sustainability—both of which are key strengths of stevia. The more consumers are aware of stevia, the more likely they are to recognise the benefits.

According to a 2015 International Stevia Council online global consumer sentiment survey of English-speaking adults, stevia is the second-most-discussed low and no-calorie sweetener, behind only aspartame. Further, compared with all other low and no-calorie sweeteners, stevia mentions enjoy the highest positive sentiment.

The study examined all online social media English global conversations between June 2013 and September 2015. A calculation of ‘net sentiment’ score distinguishes positive mentions versus negative ones, with results as follows: stevia (+65 net sentiment), sucralose (+31 net sentiment), aspartame (-48 net sentiment), sucrose (+43 net sentiment), and high fructose corn syrup (-20 net sentiment).

Within this context, the growth of the stevia industry is accelerating on a global level. The International Stevia Council estimates the global value of the sweetener market to be roughly US$70 billion, with sugar accounting for US$60 billion. The group also estimates that the stevia industry alone will grow by more than US$10 billion over the next 20 years.

As the world continues to fight sugar-related obesity, market potential and public perception are on the side of stevia. It’s an ingredient with enormous potential in the broader fight for a healthier global population, and bakery and confectionery are an obvious place to start.