Stevia: A greener way to be sweet

India is officially the diabetes capital of the world. 1 in 4 people in India have diabetes and juvenile diabetes is on the rise all over in the country. This makes it an ideal market for artificial sweeteners because excess sugar is the obvious culprit. There are many contraindications with artificial sweeteners which are being heavily advertised in India. Many health experts believe that they cause more harm than good.

When it comes to natural sweeteners, there are many options which are not yet an option in the Indian market due to heavy prejudice from the FSSAI (Foods Safety and Standards Authority of India) towards artificial sweeteners. One such viable option is stevia - a herb used in Paraguay for hundreds of years, which is 300 times sweeter than sugar. Stevia can play an important role in all industries that requires sucrose including food and soft drinks. At present, it accounts for only 1% of the global sugar-substitute market through its value in the US market is expected to grow to $2000 million by the end of 2011.

Not only is stevia cheaper than sugar, it is also found to be less harmful for the body. It is also an extremely sustainable way of producing a sweetening agent. Stevia is not a large scale commodity crop like corn and sugar. Rather, the average size of a plantation today is less than one hectare. Stevia is primarily a cash crop in rural areas and will be very favourable in today's commodity market.

In addition to this, the energy spent in processing the plant for consumption is lower when compared with traditional sugar, HFCS and artificial sweeteners. In 2008, both Coke and Pepsico made a decision to start sweetening their soft drinks with stevia. Stevia will provide all the sweetness of sugar but none of the calories or carbohydrates, and a zero glycemic index.

PureCircle is a vertically integrated company that makes a purified form of stevia called Reb-A. Over the last 30 years the main market for stevia has been in Japan and Korea. A large part of the world’s stevia crop is grown in Asia and its main extraction plant is in JiangXi, China, which has a capacity of 45,000 tonnes of leaf.

While for now PureCircle has to transport stevia grown in the Americas and Africa to Asia for extraction, local extraction capability is in the pipeline as it expects to break ground on two new facilities in Kenya and Paraguay in the next six to 12 months. It's about time the FSSAI looked into this herbal sweetener instead of endorsing chemical sweeteners in the battle against diabetes.