Stevia sweeteners are natural, zero-calorie, high-intensity sweeteners that are typically 200-300x sweeter than sugar. Traditionally obtained from the stevia plant, they are the fastest growing segment in the sweetener market today, being used in thousands of food and beverage products.
Despite the undoubted success, there is a problem with the currently available stevia sweeteners – their taste. The most prevalent stevia sweeteners in the plant have a lingering bitter, liquorice flavour, which gets worse at higher concentrations. This off-taste means you can only put a certain amount of stevia in a product and hence makes it very hard, and often impossible, to achieve a zero calorie product using stevia alone. And even if only a minority of people find your product unpleasant (people vary in their ability to taste the off-taste), this can significantly reduce the potential market. This issue can be partially mitigated, but not solved, with taste-masking agents.
A second issue with the currently available stevia sweeteners is that their sweetness on the tongue has a natural peak that cannot be improved. No matter how much more you pump into a beverage, you’ll never get a sweeter taste.
The impact of these two issues can most readily be seen in carbonated soft drinks. The use of stevia as a sweetener for such drinks has strongly accelerated in recent years. But, in almost all such products, the stevia is blended with sugar or similar. The final product has no more than a 30-45% reduction in calories compared to regular drinks. The taste and sweetening power issues of the current stevia sweeteners mean that the sugar cannot be replaced entirely. It also means that stevia is not achieving its zero-calorie potential.
Solving the taste and production conundrum
The stevia plant also makes stevia sweeteners (for example, Reb D and Reb M) that do not have these taste problems. Unfortunately, the plant makes such sweeteners only in very low amounts, well below a concentration of 1%. Getting commercial volumes of such sweeteners would require planting, growing and harvesting a very large number of stevia plants from vast tracts of land, and using equivalently large amounts of solvents to extract the pure ingredients. This in turn makes the approach prohibitively expensive.
By making these better-tasting sweeteners using yeast fermentation, Evolva solves this problem. Reb D and Reb M can be made on a large scale with economics that make them affordable to the average person. Our approach also provides a simpler, shorter and safer supply chain than traditional cultivation, processing and refining of plants.
Evolva has pioneered the discovery and development of biosynthetic approaches to stevia sweeteners. As of May 2016 we held 4 granted and 54 pending patents related to these important ingredients.
We believe that our stevia sweeteners have the potential to significantly expand the use of stevia worldwide. What this translates to in actual market potential is, as always with innovative new products, hard to estimate.
What is clear is that the need to reduce sugar consumption and the pledges of large food companies to reduce sugar in their products continue to gain momentum. The need for alternatives to sugar is clear and stevia is well placed to be “the next big thing”. But at the same time for stevia to achieve its full potential, it is necessary to both significantly improve its taste and reduce its cost, both of which we believe our approach can achieve.
Working from market data compiled by Mirabaud Securities, LMC International and others, we estimate that the total addressable market for “next generation” stevia products is around USD 4 billion. One way to derive this number is to assume that “next-generation” stevia can potentially substitute for roughly 50% of the HFCS and 10% of the sucrose used in today’s beverages, whilst not having any use in other product categories (such as confectionery or dairy products).
Such an addressable market is significantly greater than current stevia sales (estimated at around USD 200 million at the ingredient level). We justify this on the assumption that solving the current taste and cost issues of stevia will greatly expand its potential use, for example by allowing the creation of zero-calorie stevia soft drink products. However at the same time the estimate is a small fraction of the total sweetener market (estimated at some USD 60-70 billion).
Cargill partnership and progress to market
In 2013, we exclusively partnered our stevia program with Cargill. Under the agreement, Cargill is responsible for the manufacture and commercialisation of stevia, whilst Evolva has an option to financially participate in this business up to a 45% level. If we do not exercise this option, then we will receive royalties from Cargill that range from mid-single-digit to low double-digit percentages.
In autumn 2015, Cargill unveiled that stevia products resulting from our collaboration will be sold under the name EverSweet™, and launched a dedicated website for the product. Cargill has publicly stated that customer feedback to EverSweet™ has been very positive, with our high expectations on its excellent taste confirmed. During 2015 and early 2016 Cargill entered material transfer agreements with a double-digit number of potential customers.
EverSweet™ production costs are currently above where we and Cargill want them to be for launch. This is as a result of a combination of factors, including strain characteristics; fermentation and downstream processing costs; facility conversion costs, production scale, and current customer indications on pricing. We have initiated further development work to resolve the identified bottlenecks and ensure EverSweet™ can be launched as soon as possible. Currently this is estimated to be sometime after 2016.
The launch market for EverSweet™ is expected to be the USA and in June 2016 Cargill announced that it had received a “no-objection” letter from the US FDA pertaining to the product.