Paris The meteoric rise of a natural, healthy alternative to sugar might just be a little too good to be true.

In two years stevia, a plant used for centuries by Paraguay’s Guarani Indians, has shot to prominence in products by Coca-Cola, Danone and Merisant.

Encouraged by distrust of artificial sweeteners and demand for natural products, they have turned to extract of stevia, which is up to 300 times sweeter than traditional beet or cane sugar.

But now, the problems are surfacing — the aftertaste, cost, and possible hurdles in defining it as natural in some European Union (EU) markets.

The plant’s extracts have a strong aftertaste, often compared to liquorice, and are far more expensive than artificial sweeteners including aspartame, saccharin and sucralose.

To ease stevia’s taste, many manufacturers are still adding sugar to their products.

Out of the 604 new products containing extracts of stevia launched worldwide in 2010 — up from 373 in 2009 — 60 per cent still contained sugar.

Not ‘natural’

Poor consumer feedback also led dairy giant Danone to work on a new recipe for its stevia yoghurts marketed under its leading low-calorie brand Taillefine in 2010.

“We are trying to find solutions to erase this liquorice taste but it’s not easy,” says Marilise Marcantonio, communication director, Danone Fresh Products.

“Consumers are looking for natural products — but not at any price.”

Some scientists also note that a technique to extract Rebania-A, derived from stevia leaves, through ethanol, rather than water, to obtain purer and sweeter products could mean stevia may not be able to be marketed as “natural” in some EU countries, undermining the current marketing strategy.

“They are advertising stevia as a miracle,” marketing consultant Sam Waterfall says.

“If consumers begin to feel they are misled, this could be a real disaster.”

Going sweet on stevia

Stevia has been used for decades in Japan and has spread in the United States since 2008, where sales rose over 60 per cent in 2011.

Since early 2010, its extracts have been used in France in low-calorie products ranging from soft drinks to yoghurts, jam and tabletop sweeteners.

“It’s a revolution. In two years, an ingredient has been able to turn the sweetener market upside down,” says Olivier Badinand, marketing director for Europe of Merisant, maker of Canderel, leader in France’s tabletop sweeteners market.

New products

Despite taste, the growing demand for low-sugar products correlated with a rise in worldwide obesity, has prompted food giants to launch new products. For example, Coca-Cola’s flagship drinks Sprite and Nestea’s recipes have been modified to include stevia in a bid to cut the sugar level by up to 30 per cent and will soon be available in French stores, says Claire Meunier, nutrition manager, Coca-Cola France.

Who makes stevia compounds?

Compounds from stevia’s leaves like Rebaudioside A (Reb A) are made by Malaysia’s PureCircle and US agrigiant Cargill.

Tereos PureCircle Solutions sells stevia-based sugar products to food and drink makers in several EU countries including Belgium, Italy and Spain.

Tereos also replaced aspartame with stevia in some of its low-calorie tabletop sugar, Beghin-Say Ligne. It is in the process of launching a stevia powder sugar in France.

Merisant, makers of Canderel, sell a stevia version, Canderel Stevia.